The Sunday following Epiphany the Catholic liturgical calendar is the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord. I thought it’d be timely to describe the Sacrament of Baptism, its effects and Biblical roots.
The sacrament of baptism is our initiation into the Christian life and our membership into the Body of Christ. As infants we are born with the stain of original sin; the dis-graced state inherited from Adam and Eve (See Rom 5:12-19). In baptism we die to this old life and are reborn into the new life in Christ. Notice St. Paul’s striking words that connect the baptismal act to Christ’s death and resurrection:
[Romans 6:3-4] 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.
See also Mark 10:38 where Jesus connects his suffering and death with the term “baptize”. Jesus’ last words to his Disciples, the great commission, includes the command to baptize.
[Mat 28:19] 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.
And so the Church places great importance on this sacrament. The effects of Baptism include the removal of original sin and actual sin, being Born again as children of God, incorporation into the Body of Christ, and reception of the grace of justification.
Removal of sin
When we are baptized original sin is removed from our soul and we are forgiven of any actual sins we have committed. One of the main Biblical passages that reveals this is when St. Peter is evangelizing the crowds on the day of Pentecost:
[Acts 2:38] … 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.
Another relevant and important passage is when St. Paul is baptized by Ananias after his conversion:
[Acts 22:16] And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.
Born again as children of God
We often hear the phrase, born-again Christian, but all Christians by their baptism are born again. It is in baptism that we are reborn as children of God (refer to Romans 8:14-17, 1 John 3:1). Jesus refers to this being “born from above” when discussing the supernatural character of baptism with Nicodemus:
[John 3:3-5] Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, 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.”
This water and Spirit is the same that is present at Baptism. We can see these present when Jesus himself was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist:
[Mat 3:16-17] And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Note that Jesus did not require Baptism as he was without sin, but in this act he establishes this sacrament of baptism and shows its importance. It was not Jesus that was changed in his Baptism, but the water that was transformed to be a channel of divine grace when used in the sacrament. What is interesting to note also, is that after the encounter with Nicodemus quoted above from John 3, we see in verse 22 that Jesus “remained with them and baptized.”
Incorporation into the Body of Christ
The Church is often called the Mystical Body of Christ, mentioned in scripture several times. It is by this partaking of the divine nature of God in Christ that we are saved. Baptism is our membership into the Church, Christ’s Body:
[1 Cor 12:12-13] For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
[Gal 3:27] For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
All Christians are united by their baptism. Even non-Catholic Christians share this brotherhood with Catholic Christians, although our unity is imperfect due to other divisions. But the Church affirms the baptism of other Christian faiths that use the Trinitarian formula commanded by Jesus (see above Mt 28:19).
Reception of the grace of justification
The following quote from St. Paul uses the term “washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit”, which is understood to refer to the sacrament of Baptism, and it shows that we receive the grace of justification:
[Titus 3:5-7] he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
Baptism necessary for salvation
With all these effects of baptism, and with what Jesus says in John 3:5 about entry into the kingdom of God, it’s clear that it is necessary for salvation. St. Peter in his first letter speaks of the prefiguration of baptism in Noah and the ark being saved through the water. But then he adds:
[1Pet 3:21] Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus also shows the necessity of baptism as well:
Mark 16:16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
What is important to note, as the Church teaches, is that faith is necessary. Although we may have received baptism as an infant, we still need to accept and affirm our baptismal identity through faith in the promises of Christ. Given this necessity, it is important to clarify the distinctions the the Church applies in baptism. Along with the normal sacramental baptism there are also baptism by desire and baptism by blood. The former covers the situation where an individual is desiring to receive the effects of baptism but dies before receiving the actual sacrament. The latter is reserved for martyrs, those who die for their faith in Christ.
What about the practice of baptizing infants? Many Protestant Christian faiths object to this as many view it as merely a public symbol of their acceptance of Jesus. However, we know that Jesus did not deny little children (Mark 10:14-16, Luke 18:15). Also, as the Jews had circumcision as their entry into membership of the people of God, so Christianity replaces it with baptism. And since the Jews circumcised infants, so we correspondingly should baptize infants:
[Col 2:11-12] In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
This “circumcision made without hands” in context of verse 12 must refer to baptism. The practice in the early Apostolic Church also has examples of entire households (with more than likely small children or infants) being baptized. Passages that refer to this include Acts 16:5, 18:18, and 1 Corinthians 1:16. Acts 2:38-39 also tells us that the promises of baptism “is to you and to your children.”
Old Testament signs
As with many of the Christian mysteries, types and prefigurations and prophecies are present in the Old Testament. This is also the case with Baptism. One of the more interesting and explicit promises of Baptism that God gives is from this passage in Ezekiel:
[Ezekiel 36:25-27] I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.