Swimming the Tiber 13: The Sacraments: Baptism (Part One)

There are, generally speaking, two primary points of contention regarding baptism: (1) when to do it, and (2) what it’s for. That may sound like just about everything, but at least I don’t have to argue that we should do it–that much should be obvious (Matthew 28:19-20).

I grew up in the Baptist tradition, which means that my answers to the above issues were (1) upon or beyond the age of accountability (or age of reason), usually five to eight years old (depending on the child), and when the person expressed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and (2) as a statement to the church community that a person had accepted the aforementioned faith.

As a Catholic, however, the answers are (1) as soon as possible, and (2) for the forgiveness of sins.

These are not close together at all, as you can see. So why the change? Well, let’s look at these one at a time–but just to mess with you, I’m going to tackle them in reverse.

Let’s first examine the Scriptures in favor of baptism as a sign of our faith, but nothing more.

And [he] said to them, “Having been conveyed unto quite the whole cosmos, herald the good news to all creation.1 The [one] having believed and having been baptized will be saved, but the [one] disbelieving will be condemned.”

– Mark 16:15-16 (my translation)

But Crispus, the synagogue-head, believed in the lord with his whole house, and many of the Corinthians, hearing, were believing and were being baptized.

– Acts 18:8 (my translation)

For Christ did not dispatch me to baptize but to evangelize, not in cleverness of reckoning, in order that the cross of Christ may not be emptied. For the reckoning, the [one] of the cross, is folly to the [ones] being destroyed, but to us, the [ones] being saved, [it] is the power of God.

– 1 Corinthians 1:17-18 (my translation)

1 Or every creature.

In the first passage, we see that believing is the real crux of the matter (no pun intended). If you believe (and get baptized), you will be saved, but disbelieving is the path to condemnation; so, it seems, the believing is the part that saves, not the baptizing. In the second place, we don’t even see mention of Crispus being baptized, so it must not have been important. And in the third passage, we read St. Paul telling us that he came to preach, not baptize, so of course, preaching is more important.

There are also other passages that do not suggest anything special about baptism, treating it almost as an afterthought–for example Acts 2:41; 8:35-38; 16:14-15, 31-34. At most, these passages suggest that baptism is a sort of statement, a declaration of intent, but nothing spiritually efficacious. So baptism is, in essence, a sign of faith. But is that the whole story? Is it only a sign of faith, or does it actually accomplish something as well?

Before we move on to other passages, let me first address the objections raised here. For the first passage, it seems that belief saves, and not baptism–but we already know this isn’t the whole story, of course, and it’s not quite so simple with baptism, either. As we shall see shortly, baptism is efficacious, and a lack of mention here is not the same thing as denying power to baptism altogether. For the second, the tense of the latter clause is important–we see that many Corinthians were believing and being baptized, so Crispus (and his whole house) is included in this group, which is juxtaposed with the response of the Jews in verse 6 of that chapter (they opposed Paul and reviled him).

The passage from 1 Corinthians is quoted often by opponents of baptism as a real sacrament with power to accomplish things in our lives. “If baptism is so important,” people say, “why did Paul say preaching was better?” Well, for one thing, St. Paul didn’t say that preaching was better, only that he came to Corinth to evangelize, not to baptize. The context here is that he is angry that the Corinthians have divided themselves and call themselves after Paul, after Cephas (Peter), after Apollos, after Christ, but there is only one Christ (a topic to which St. Paul returns in his letter to the Ephesians, as we shall see next week). Evangelism and baptism are not opposed, of course, but steps in a process; first, you are evangelized and converted by the power of the cross (not by eloquence or sophistry), then you are baptized, then you proceed in a lifelong pursuit of Christ through discipleship and faith. As St. Paul wrote later in this same letter (and as we saw a couple of weeks ago), “each [man] has his own grace from God, the [one] thus, the other thus.” Paul’s gift, and his task, was to evangelize; it fell to others to baptize. Or, as Jesus said, “One sows and another reaps” (John 4:37, NRSV).

Now, let’s look at a few more passages.

“I, on the one hand, baptize you in water unto repentance, but the [one] coming after1 me is stronger than me, whose sandals [I] am not competent to carry;2 [he] himself will baptize you in a holy spirit and [in/with] fire; whose winnowing-shovel in his hand both purges thoroughly his threshing-floor and gathers his grain into the storehouse, but the chaff-heap will burn down in unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus comes near from Galilee upon the Jordan to John in order to be baptized by him. But John was hindering him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” And having answered, Jesus said to him, “Let [it] go just now, for thus [it] is conspicuously fitting3 for us to fill all justice.” Then he let him go. And Jesus, having been baptized, went straight up from the water; and behold, the skies opened {to him}some manuscripts omit this word, and [he] saw {the} spirit of God descending just as a dove {and} comingsome manuscripts: coming; others omit upon him; and behold, [there was] a sound out of the skies saying, “This [man] is my son, the beloved [one], in whom [I] am well-pleased.”

– Matthew 3:11-17 (my translation)

And being gathered, [he] gave a command to them not to separate from Jerusalem, but to await the promise of the father, which [you] heard from me, that John, on the one hand, baptized with water, but you will be baptized in a holy spirit after not many of these days.

– Acts 1:4-5 (my translation)

But having heard, [they] were stabbed [in] the heart and they said to Peter and the remaining apostles, “What should [we] do, men, brothers?” And Peter to them, “Change your minds(repent),” {[he] said}, “and be baptized, each of you, upon the name of Jesus Christ unto the acquittal of your errors and [you] will receive the gift of the holy spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all the [ones] up to a faraway [place], how many soever the lord God called of us.” And with more, other arguments [he] testified and [he] was calling to them, saying, “Be saved from this crooked generation.” The [ones], therefore, having accepted his argument were baptized and about three thousand lives were added in that day. And [they] were adhering firmly4 to the teaching of the apostles and to the communion, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.

– Acts 2:37-42 (my translation)

With Peter still speaking these sayings, the spirit, the holy [one], fell upon all the [ones] hearing the argument. And the faithful [ones] out of the circumcision, as many as gathered with Peter, changed,5 that also upon the nations the gift of the holy spirit has been poured out; for [they] were hearing them speaking with tongues and magnifying God. Then Peter answered, “Does anyone have power to withhold the water from baptizing these [men], whosoever received the spirit, the holy [one], just as also we [did]?” And [he] ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then [they] asked him to stay for some days.

– Acts 10:44-48 (my translation)

Note: for comparison, see also Mark 1:4-11; Luke 3:16-22; John 1:26-34; and read Acts 11:15-18 for important context on the passage from chapter 10 above. Acts 22:16 mentions again the power of baptism.

1 The word here (ὀπίσω) literally means “behind” or “backwards”; this is an idiom in Greek for the future, which is unknown and unseen (therefore behind us), as opposed to the past, which is seen (and therefore ahead). We preserve this in English when we say that the future comes “after” us, even though we frequently think of ourselves marching forward into the future.
2 There may be several plays on words here. First, the verb “to carry” (βαστάσαι, from βαστάζω) resembles the verb “to baptize” (βαπτίζω), and we will see John shortly baptizing Jesus under protest that he is unworthy to do so. This verb also literally means to lift up or raise, which metaphorically means to exalt or glorify, which is one of the purposes of John’s ministry. A synonymous verb (ὑψόω) is also used by the Apostle John in John 3:14 to connect with Jesus’ crucifixion.
3 This is a periphrastic form. (See my note 6 on periphrastic forms from a couple of weeks ago.) Here, Jesus emphasizes the nature of the deed, rather than the effect (it is seemly, rather than it seems to so-and-so).
4 This is another periphrastic form. Here, the sense is focused on the converts’ state of mind, rather than the specific action (though of course the action is important, even more important is its reflection of who they became as a result of their conversion).
5 This is often translated as a passive, e.g., “They were astounded,” or, “They were amazed,” but the word is technically active. It literally means to displace, but in this case, perhaps it means something like changed [their minds]. (This should not be confused with the word translated “change your minds” in the above passage, which is frequently translated “repent”; the words are not related, but the theological sense–i.e., conversion to the truth–may be.)

There’s a lot to unravel here, but some of it is self-explanatory. I’ll try to be brief.

In the first passage, we hear John declare the purpose of baptism: repentance. Mark calls it a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (NRSV). This is the effect of baptism. But we immediately see Jesus baptized by John; surely he had no sins that needed to be forgiven. But Matthew tells us why Jesus’ baptism by John is different, but still appropriate: in the first place, it was appropriate that Jesus fulfill the law and do as he taught us to do (Matthew 5:17). Also, Jesus’ sins are not forgiven by baptism, because he has committed no sins to forgive, and he does not possess the stain of original sin, but the act does spark off his earthly ministry, complete with a theophany (the revelation of God to the people, by God’s declaration of his Son’s identity). This is the effect for Jesus, and the effect for us is similar: it cleanses us of original sin and of all our sinful deeds prior to baptism, so that, washed clean by the blood of Christ, God can declare of us a sonship. (See Romans 8:12-17; Galatians 3:25-29; 4:4-7.)

The second passage is an echo of John’s teaching in each of the Gospels: after the baptism with water comes a baptism with the Holy Spirit, a greater baptism, sent by Christ. At first glance, this sounds like an abandonment of the baptism by water in favor of the baptism by the Holy Spirit, but consider the third passage: no sooner had the apostles been baptized by the Holy Spirit than they preached to the gathered crowd and, upon their conversion, Peter and the apostles baptized them with water, according to the command of Christ (see Matthew 28 again).

In the fourth passage, the revelation of the Gospel to the Gentiles converts their hearts, and God bestows his Holy Spirit upon them–and immediately, Peter orders that they be baptized with water. Is this merely a formality? If they have the Holy Spirit already, what need have they of this other baptism? But this reinforces the truth: baptism is an essential part of the process, by which we are granted graces by God and gain entrance into Christ’s Body, the Church, and by which our sins are forgiven. Acts 22:16 reminds us of this important step; for who can deny that Saul, on the road to Emmaus by Christ himself, and again in Damascus by Ananias, was ordained to go unto the world as an apostle? But still he needed to be baptized, to be washed of his sins, before that ministry could begin in earnest.

In case you remain unconvinced even now, consider also the cleansing, healing, and saving power of being washed with water. In Genesis, we read of Noah and the great flood, washing away all the sins of the world–but as merely a type of baptism, imperfectly cleansing the world, for immediately Ham sins against his father and the cycle starts all over again. But 1 Peter 3:18-22, in some of the strongest support for baptism as a saving sacrament in all of Scripture, tells us that the great flood prefigured baptism, because in the flood, the sinful were washed away and eight people were saved for God’s kingdom.

Later, in Exodus, we read of the people of Israel fleeing Pharaoh’s armies through the Red Sea. Again, through water, the people were saved from evil. 1 Corinthians 10 reminds us that the people passed through the sea, were baptized into Moses, and were saved from Egypt–but only for a time, for soon they began to fall prey to idolatry. Again, we see the same symbols: water cleanses, but only for a time.

In 2 Kings 5, we come to the story of a man named Naaman, who had leprosy. By the command of Elisha, he washed in the Jordan seven times (the same Jordan where John the Baptist preached and baptized) and was cleansed of his leprosy. And Naaman believed, and worshiped God, but he, too, still had his shortcomings (fearing the wrath of his master for not worshiping in the house of Rimmon, for example).

Jesus himself gives us symbols of baptism. We see in John 9:1-7 that Jesus healed a man born blind, in no small part, by having him wash his eyes. The man does not know all the details, but he has been cleansed. (In verses 35-39, Jesus finds him again and tells him more, and he believes.) Later, “before the festival of the Passover,” Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Baptism is not the only message in this moment (John 13:1-11), but it should not be forgotten, especially in verse 8: “Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me'” (NRSV).

Consider, finally, the baptism with fire. Jesus spoke of undergoing this baptism himself (Mark 10:38-39; Luke 12:50), of the pain and suffering he would endure. This is the “baptism into death,” to which we are joined in our own baptism, as St. Paul explains in Romans 6:3-4. This wraps baptism up in the crucifixion and the resurrection, laying us down to sleep in death, raising us up in newness of life. In this, baptism accomplishes what its analogue accomplished; it is but one step by which we fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (see Colossians 1:24). Baptism puts to death the old self, crucified with Christ, and brings us forth anew, that we may live for God in Christ Jesus. In this way, too, by baptism we clothe ourselves with Christ himself (see again Galatians 3:27-29).

Can we really doubt that baptism is efficacious to forgive sins? And not just any sin, but the “old self,” the fallen nature–original sin. (You may recall that I talked about that topic in some detail last week.) It is by baptism that we put to death our original sin, our slavery unto death, and enter into a new life in Christ Jesus. This is the purpose and effect of baptism, not merely a declaration of our changed hearts, but the very method of marking our souls with an indelible mark, a mark which can never be removed.

This post grows long indeed, and I still have a great deal to cover about when baptism ought to occur. Look forward to that discussion next week!

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