The Catholic teaching on Baptism is vastly different from the common Evangelical view on Baptism, and the differences are very great indeed. In one corner, Christians profess Baptism as something that imparts a gift from God to the person being Baptized through no merit of their own, and in the other corner, you have Christians professing that in baptism nothing really happens at all, but is something that the person being baptized does in order to please God.
Baptism as a requirement of the New Covenant
Catholic teaching defines Baptism as a requirement of the New Covenant founded by Jesus Christ. Baptism is uniquely united to the evangelization of the entire world.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 close of the age.”
-St. Matthew 28:18-20
Jesus’ command is concise: make disciples of all nations. How do we do this? The first thing he commands is to baptize them. The second thing is that the they are taught all that Christ commanded and that they observe these things. Becoming a disciple requires baptism, a Trinitarian baptism, and obedience to the commands of Jesus.
Baptism as the means for remission of sins
Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples to do silly things that have no meaning. Baptism is certainly not an exception to this rule. Scripture teaches that Baptism is not only the way in which we first enter into the New Covenant, but is also the way in which we are first forgiven of our sins. For instance, this beautiful description of Baptism by St. Peter:
God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
1 St. Peter 3:20b-22
The waters of Baptism are more powerful than the water with which you wash your hands and your face. The waters of Baptism do not simply remove dirt from our bodies, but somehow have been imbued with the very power of God, the same God who moved over the face of the waters in the second verse of the Bible. These waters are a cry to God for a clear conscience. We need not be scandalized by such a statement, believing that this in some way waters down the redemptive work of Christ because this same passage makes it clear that it is by the redemptive resurrection of Jesus that Baptism finds its power! How glorious and wonderful!
St. Peter again tells us that that Baptism is both the first step in our walk with Christ and the means for remission of sin in the Acts of the Apostles:
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you shall receive the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
Acts of the Apostles 2:37-39
Wow! St. Peter describes what they must do to right their wrongs. He says for them to repent and be baptized. He describes the nature of the baptism, that it is done in the name of the Lord Jesus. And he describes what baptism does for them, it grants them forgiveness for their sins and fills them with the Holy Spirit. He says that upon baptism they will be filled with the Holy Spirit, not beforehand, but afterwards.
Baptism as a public statement of faith
In all of the prefigurements of Baptism, in all of the Biblical treatises on the Sacrament, not a single one makes any claim that resembles the common evangelical belief of baptism as a public testimony of sorts. They do, however, speak of Baptism as the initial means of salvation, as the method of forgiving our sins, as the point where we receive the Holy Spirit, as a union with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is what Baptism is according to Scripture, and this is what Baptism is according to the Catholic Church.
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