Baptism Of Christ, Pietro Perugino, 1481 - 1483. Wikiart.
Baptism Of Christ, Pietro Perugino, 1481 - 1483. Wikiart.

Listers, Holy Baptism is the portal of salvation. As we learned in RCIA: 12 Questions to Introduce the Sacraments, a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. The following twelve questions serve to introduce the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and provide citations for further study. The primary scripture submitted for contemplation is the Baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 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.” St. Matthew 3:13-17

Through Holy Baptism, the believer is configured to Jesus Christ and sealed, in an indellible manner, by the Holy Spirit. It is this death to self and new life in Christ that Catholics call to remembrance every time they walk into a Church and cross themselves with holy water. It is a reminder that every Catholic, via his or her Holy Baptism, is called to keep the faith and to evangelize the world. To understand and take seriously the Sacrament of Holy Baptism is to understand and take seriously the call to be a committed disciple of Jesus Christ.

1. What is the Sacrament of Baptism?

Baptism is a sacrament, which means it is "an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."1 The term baptism comes from the Greek word baptizein meaning "to immerse" or "to plunge."2 As its name implies, the outward sign of baptism is the minister either immersing the person in water or pouring water over the person, and stating, "[Name], I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Baptism was instituted and mandated by Jesus Christ when, before ascending into heaven, he said, "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."3 As a sign that gives grace—an efficacious sign—it is "by baptism [that] all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin."4 Baptism is the first of the sacraments, as "all other sacred rites presuppose its existence and build upon it."5

2. How is Baptism Foreshadowed in the Old Testament?

As Holy Mother Church teaches, "the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New."6 To understand the riches of Scripture as a whole, the Church has since its earliest days used typology. Typology is "the discernment of person, events, or things in the Old Testament which prefigured, and thus served as a 'type' (or prototype) of, the fulfillment of God's plan in the person of Christ."7 Studying the types of baptism can help us understand how baptism, instituted by Christ, fits into the "dynamic unity of the divine plan of salvation."8 In searching for types of Baptism in the Old Testament, we should be sensitive to any time Scripture speaks of either salvation or creation coming forth from water. In this spirit, Scripture itself starts with a type of Baptism, as "the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the water."9 From the water—formless and void—came life and all of Creation. The connection between the waters of Creation and the baptismal waters that cause a new creation in Christ is central to the theology of the New Testament. St. Paul refers to all those who die and rise with Christ, through the baptismal waters, as "new creatures" under the New Adam of the New Creation.10 The connection was made by early Christians as well, as Tertullian taught, "the primordial water brought forth life, so that no one should be astonished that in Baptism the waters are able to give life."11 In another type of Baptism in the Old Testament, our first pope, St. Peter, makes the connection between Baptism and those who "were saved through water" on Noah’s Ark.12 Other types can be seen in the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses striking the rock in the desert, and the healing of Naaman.13

3. How is Baptism Instituted in the New Testament?

In the New Testament, the preparation for the Sacrament of Baptism was set forth by St. John the Baptist. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, "the baptism of John did not confer grace, but only prepared the way for grace."14 Christ instituted the Sacrament of Baptism at his Baptism. For "the one who did not need Baptism received it in order to sanctify the waters of Baptism, as indicated by many Church Fathers like St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Bede."15 St. Thomas Aquinas follows the Early Church by teaching "through contact with His flesh the regenerative power entered not only into the waters which came into contact with Christ, but into all waters throughout the whole world and during all future ages."16 Aquinas notes, however, that Baptism was not mandated until after Christ's Passion, so that man could understand what it meant to conform to Christ's death and resurrection.17

4. What are the Proper Matter and Form of Baptism?

The proper matter of baptism is "real and natural water."18 As with all the Sacraments, the natural outward sign reflects the supernatural grace given; thus, with Baptism it is fitting that as "water is used for cleansing" the Sacrament of Baptism "cleanses the soul."19 The form of Baptism is the Trinitarian formula, "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."20 In the history of the Church, the ritual of Baptism has included both immersion and pouring water over the individual—both are done in the "most expressive way" by either triple immersion or pouring water over the recipient three times.21

5. What are the Effects of the Holy Baptism?

There are five chief effects conferred by Baptism upon the soul: forgiveness of sins, union with Christ, gift of the Holy Spirit, adopted child of God the Father, and membership in the Church.22 Regarding the forgiveness of sins, the Church teaches "by Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin."23 Original sin is the loss of original holiness suffered by our First Parents—Adam and Eve—in the Fall.24 The sin "is called original because it comes down to us from our first parents, and we are brought into the world with its guilt on our soul."25 In addition to the forgiveness of all our sins—including the guilt of original sin—Baptism gives the grace of sanctifying grace, which is the grace "which makes the soul holy and pleasing to God."26

6. How does the Sacrament of Baptism Unites us to Christ?

The newly baptized "having been freed from the bondage of sin, the baptized person is capable of union with Christ."27 As St. Paul teaches, "for as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ."28 As foreshadowed with the Spirit of God above the primordial waters in Genesis, the recipient of Baptism emerges from the waters a new creation. In his epistles, St. Paul often uses creation-language from Genesis to explain the New Covenant of Christ. The Apostle writes, "therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come."29 Moreover, St. Paul compares Adam with Christ—whom he calls the "last Adam."30 The Last Adam, Christ, has brought about a recapitulation of all things, a new creation, and whoever moves out from the old Adam to under the headship of the New Adam is a new creature.31 In addition, the newly baptized is also united to Christ as priest, prophet, and king.32 Ultimately, Baptism "seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ."33 It is a character which "no sin can erase"—which is also why Baptism cannot be repeated.34

7. What is the Gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism?

The gift of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Baptism is where the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in the newly baptized in a real and personal manner. As St. Paul reminded the Church in Corinth, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.35 The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the baptized demonstrates the Trinitarian nature of Baptism, because through the Sacrament instituted by Christ, the Holy Spirit may dwell within us, and through the Holy Spirit and in unity with the Son we are able to call God our Father.36 The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is also "especially associated with the conferral of sanctifying grace to the baptized person"—that grace that makes us holy and pleasing to God.37 Finally, the Church teaches that in Baptism, it is the Holy Spirit that marks the baptized with an indelible character of belonging to Jesus Christ.38

8. How does Baptism Make Us Adopted Children of God the Father?

Holy Mother Church teaches, "Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes… [the baptized] an adopted son of God, who has become a 'partaker of the divine nature," member of Christ and coheir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit."39 In Baptism, the baptized individual is adopted as a son or daughter of the Father—the divine filiation. St. Paul's epistle to the Romans clearly instructs that the newly baptized are adopted by God.40 He states, "for all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God… when we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and fellow heirs with Christ."41 The analogy of adoption—as a legal act—falls short of the grace extended in divine filiation; because, unlike legal adoption, the adoption of God in Baptism makes the children into new creatures who now share in the same divine nature as their Father. As St. Paul taught, it is now with the Holy Spirit in us that we can call God "Father." Therefore, as sons of God, we are coheirs with the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and are set to gain the inheritance he earned for us by his death and resurrection.42

9. How does Baptism Make Us Members of the Catholic Church?

St. Paul teaches, "for by one Spirit we were baptized into one body."43 From the Sacrament of Baptism, the newly baptized are born into "the one People of God of the New Covenant, which transcends all the natural or human limits of nations, cultures, races, and sexes."44 Baptism brings the individual into the Body of Christ of which Christ is the head; so too, the baptized is brought into the Bride of Christ, the Church, to whom Christ is the groom. As with Jesus Christ and his Apostles, the "ecclesial communion [of the Church] is indissolubly bound to the communion of faith."45 As there can only be one Body of Christ and one Bride of Christ, so too is there one Baptism and one Church—the Catholic Church. Only Christ has the authority to start a Church, and it is his one Church, the Catholic Church, that we enter through the portal of Baptism.46

10. Is the Sacrament of Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who instituted the Sacrament of Baptism, teaches the rebirth of Baptism is necessary for salvation, saying, "Truly, Truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God."47 Moreover, Christ commanded that Baptism be observed, declaring, "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."48 In adherence to Jesus Christ, the Church teaches, "Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament."49 St. Peter, our first pope, affirms the necessity of Baptism, as he proclaimed, "Repent, and be baptized everyone 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."50 Therefore, in adherence to the words of Christ and Holy Scripture, the Church holds that "Baptism is necessary to salvation, because without it we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven."51

11. Is Baptism Necessary for the Salvation of Infants?

In the Old Covenant, the rite of circumcision served as the sign that a male person (and his household, if applicable) had entered into the People of God. In the Book of Genesis, the command of the LORD to circumcise those males who would be brought into the covenant included infants. The LORD states:

He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. Genesis 17:12-14.

The rite of circumcision serves as an Old Testament type foreshadowing the New Testament rite of Holy Baptism. In the Old Testament (or Old Covenant), circumcision was the rite by which a person entered into covenant with the LORD and consequently into their salvation. In the New Covenant, Jesus Christ institutes a new ritual—Holy Baptism—by which a person enters into the new covenant of Jesus Christ; and as with circumcision, the Baptism has, since the beginning of the Church, included infants. (CCC 1252.) The testimony of the Early Church Fathers attest to the necessity of infant baptism:52

“Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. No one is excepted, not [even] the infant.” St. Ambrose (“Concerning Repentance,” c. 387 A.D.)

“Baptize first the children; and if they can speak for themselves, let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them.” St. Hippolytus of Rome (“The Apostolic Tradition,” 215 A.D.)

“You see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors [it bestows]! For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by [personal] sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his [Christ’s] members” St. John Chrysostom (Baptismal Catechese in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388])

As the Israelite parents were responsible for bringing their male children into the People of God via circumcision, so too are Catholic parents responsible for bringing their children into the People of God, the Church, via Holy Baptism. The Church, holding to Holy Scripture and the Early Church Fathers, declares the following:

Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1250.

With an understanding of how Baptism perfected the rite of circumcision, of how even infants are in need of the salvific effect of the baptismal waters, and of how the Early Church practiced infant baptism, it is necessary to state that “Baptism is necessary for salvation” for infants.53

12. What of Infants and Other Persons who Die without Holy Baptism?

In short, the Church holds together the economy of salvation as given to her by Jesus Christ with the belief that God is a just and loving God. The Church acknowledges that Jesus Christ mandated Holy Baptism as the necessary and ordinary portal of salvation; however, the Church also acknowledges that God may act in extraordinary ways in accordance with his justice and mercy. The Church teaches:54

Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.

The Church provides several examples of hope (and even assurance) when it comes to these unbaptized souls. First, the Church has since time immemorial held that there was a “Baptism of Blood” for those who are martyred for our Lord before they are even baptized.55 Second, “catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.”56 Third, there are those who are truly “ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the Will of God in accordance with his understanding of it can be saved” via the desire for baptism.57 Finally, “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them… all the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.”58 It is important to reiterate that the Church knows of no other means to salvation outside of Holy Baptism, as Jesus Christ revealed no other means of salvation. As such, and as stated by the Church, the hope we can have in a just and merciful God can never be an impediment to our efforts of evangelization. All persons are called to full communion with Jesus Christ; therefore, all persons, without exception, are called to Holy Baptism.

  1. Baltimore Catechism, Q. 574. ↩︎

  2. See Fr. Paul Haffer, The Sacramental Mystery, Third Edition (1999), 35; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1214. ↩︎

  3. Matthew 28:19-20a, RSVCE. ↩︎

  4. CCC 1263. ↩︎

  5. Haffner, 33. ↩︎

  6. CCC, 129. ↩︎

  7. CCC, Glossary, Typology↩︎

  8. Id. ↩︎

  9. Gen 1:2b. ↩︎

  10. II Cor 5:17, cf. John 3:5. ↩︎

  11. Fr. Jean Danielou, SJ, The Bible & the Liturgy (1956), 72, citing De Baptismo, 2. ↩︎

  12. I Peter 3:20-22; Haffner, 34. ↩︎

  13. Col 2:11-12; I Cor 10:2; Nb 20:1-11; 2 Kings 5:8-14; and prophecies of Baptism, which includes Ez 36:25-26; Zc 13:1; not all OT types of baptism had water, i.e., circumcision; see CCC 1217-22 for “Prefigurations of Baptism in the Old Covenant,” especially as expressed by the liturgical life of the Church at Easter. ↩︎

  14. Haffner, 36, citing Summa Theologica III q. 38; see also, “Christ’s Baptism,” CCC 1223-25. ↩︎

  15. Haffner, 36. ↩︎

  16. Id., citing ST III q. 78 a. 5. ↩︎

  17. ST III q. 66 a. 2, cf. Haffner, 37. ↩︎

  18. Haffner, 41. ↩︎

  19. BC, q. 586. ↩︎

  20. Haffner, 44; BC q. 645. ↩︎

  21. CCC, 1239; see also, CCC 1229-45 to understand the celebration of Holy Baptism in the liturgical life of the Church. ↩︎

  22. Haffner, 49-58; cf. CCC, 1262-74; BC, q. 621. ↩︎

  23. Id., 1263; cf. Haffner, 49. ↩︎

  24. CCC, Glossary, Original Sin; BC, q. 265. ↩︎

  25. BC, q. 266; Original Sin: ” The sin by which the first human beings disobeyed the commandment of God, choosing to follow their own will rather than God’s will. As a consequence they lost the grace of original holiness, and became subject to the law of death; sin became universally present in the world. Besides the personal sin of Adam and Eve, original sin describes the fallen state of human nature which affects every person born into the world, and from which Christ, the “new Adam,” came to redeem us (396-412).” CCC, Original Sin, Glossary. ↩︎

  26. BC, q. 460. ↩︎

  27. Haffner, 50. ↩︎

  28. Gal 3:27, cf. Rm 6:1-11. ↩︎

  29. II Cor 5:17, cf. Gal 6:15; cf. Haffner, 51; cf. CCC 1265-66. ↩︎

  30. II Cor 15:45 ↩︎

  31. Rm 5:12-20; II Cor 15:20-3, 42-50; CCC 359, 388, 402, 504, 505, 518, 532, 538-9, 635. ↩︎

  32. See Haffner, 52-3, citing I Pt 2:2-10, 2:9, Col 1:15-20, Ep 1:3-23, Ep 6:11-14. ↩︎

  33. CCC 1272, see 1273-74. ↩︎

  34. CCC 1272; Regarding the imprint on the soul: “We cannot receive Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders more than once, because they imprint a character in the soul,” “The character which these Sacraments imprint in the soul is a spiritual mark which remains forever,” and “This character remains in the soul even after death; for the honor and glory of those who are saved; for the shame and punishment of those who are lost.” BC 609-11. ↩︎

  35. I Cor 6:19, cf. Haffner, 54. ↩︎

  36. Haffner, 54, citing Gal 4:6, Rm 8:15. ↩︎

  37. Haffner, 54. ↩︎

  38. CCC 1274. ↩︎

  39. CCC 1265, cf. 257, 1077, 537, 1129, 1197, 1265, 1279. ↩︎

  40. Haffner, 55. ↩︎

  41. Romans 8:14, 15b, 16, 17a; Haffner, 55. ↩︎

  42. BC, q. 623-25. ↩︎

  43. I Cor 12:13; CCC 1267. ↩︎

  44. CCC 1267. ↩︎

  45. Haffner, 56, citing Acts 2:37-41, 42; cf. Christ's prayer for the Church, John 17:21-25. ↩︎

  46. Matt 16:13-20; Christ as the Son of David with the authority to start his Kingdom, the Church: Matt 1:1-2; 9:27-29; Mk 10:47, 48; I Chron 17:14; Ps 89:35-36; Luke1:3; Is. 9:6-7; 11:1-3; Jer 33:14-15, 17, 19-21, 26; Ps 132:10-14, 17; Luke 1:31-33, 68-71; II Tim 2:8; Rev 5:5, 22:16; Rom 1:3. ↩︎

  47. John 3:5; CCC 1257. ↩︎

  48. Matthew 28:19. ↩︎

  49. CCC 1257, citing Mark 16:16; ↩︎

  50. Acts 2:38, emphasis added; cf. 2:41, 8:12f, 16, 36, 38; 10:47f; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:3-5; cf. Haffner, 68, fn 9. ↩︎

  51. BC, q. 631. ↩︎

  52. Early Church Father Quotes on Infant Baptism. ↩︎

  53. CCC 1257. ↩︎

  54. CCC 1257; in contrast, the Baltimore Catechism reads as follows: “Where will persons go who — such as infants — have not committed actual sin and who, through no fault of theirs, die without baptism?— A. Persons, such as infants, who have not committed actual sin and who, through no fault of theirs, die without baptism, cannot enter heaven; but it is the common belief they will go to some place similar to Limbo, where they will be free from suffering, though deprived of the happiness of heaven.” BC 632; for a modern discussion on unbaptized infants and limbo, see The Hope of Salvation for Infants who Die Without Being Baptized, The International Theological Commission↩︎

  55. CCC 1258. ↩︎

  56. CCC 1259. ↩︎

  57. CCC 1260, 1258; see also, BC 650-54, “Q. 654. How do we know that the baptism of desire or of blood will save us when it is impossible to receive the baptism of water? A. We know that baptism of desire or of blood will save us when it is impossible to receive the baptism of water, from Holy Scripture, which teaches that love of God and perfect contrition can secure the remission of sins ; and also that Our Lord promises salvation to those who lay down their life for His sake or for His teaching.” ↩︎

  58. CCC 1261; see also fn. 54, above; another discussion here would be those infants who die from the scourge of abortion. ↩︎