Because of personal circumstances, I have become particularly familiar over the years with the beliefs and practices of Baptists. My wife is a former Baptist, and my in-laws attend a Baptist church regularly. The majority of pastors with whom I have corresponded have all been Baptists. Thus, I devote a large part of my evangelization efforts to reaching members of this particular denomination, primarily because I am more familiar with it than others.
In an effort to evangelize Baptists, I will occasionally post a response to Baptist sermons that I hear over the internet in an effort get members of this church to consider whether the theology preached there is truly as Bible-based as they might think it is.
A short while ago, I listened to the Sunday-evening prayer service at Fairwinds Baptist Church in Bear, DE. Unlike other Sunday-evening services, this one began with a series of baptisms; about five children who appeared (over the internet) about 10-15 years of age and one adult were baptized.
The ritual was short, nothing like the beautiful rite of baptism performed on my son Logan a month ago. [I will post a video link soon.] Pastor Carlo simply asked if the person had accepted Christ as savior and would live for Him. After saying "yes," each person was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Once the ceremony was complete, the pastor, standing in the baptismal waters, spread his hands and proclaimed that each of these persons had just received a "believer's baptism;" that is, baptism followed the saving "act" of accepting Christ as personal Lord and Savior. He then went on to say that "not a single person was ever saved through these waters!" A week or so before, he had proclaimed that getting baptized in every stream, lake, pool, river, ocean, or bathtub could never save you. His point? Baptism does not save you.
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As a Bible-believing Catholic, I find it difficult to believe Pastor Carlo on this point. While I think Pastor Carlo is sincere in his beliefs, I think that he finds himself in direct contradiction with Scripture when he proclaims that baptism does not save you.
In 1 Peter 3:21, St. Peter writes:
"Baptism...now saves you."
It is ironic that I have never once heard this verse or seen it cited in a single sermon or tract distributed by Fairwinds Baptist. (Update 09/13/09: For the first time in almost a year, I heard Pastor Carlo discuss 1 Peter 3:21 in regard to Baptism. I've probably missed twenty sermons over the last year of the three given each week, but of the ones I've heard, this was his first mention of this verse.) Perhaps a number of members of the church would even be shocked and surprised to learn that the Bible actually strings those four words together without a "doesn't." Odd phrase for the the Holy Spirit to inspire if the exact opposite is true, eh?
Even more interesting are the Old Testament types of Baptism, all of which find their fulfillment in the waters in which Pastor Carlo was standing when he made his proclamation. Remember what St. Augustine taught: that the New Testament is concealed in the Old and the Old Testament is revealed in the New. Biblical typology is the study of Old Testament "types" (or "figures" or "shadows") of New Testament realities. One amazing thing about being a Christian and living after Christ is how the New Testament realities explain the meaning of salvation history before Christ's entrance into it; in a sense, we get to experience Old Testament events through their fulfillment in New Testament realities. Further, we get to learn from Old Testament events what these realities mean. Yet the realities shoot far beyond the Old Testament types because of the incarnation of Christ and the grace won by him on Calvary. If people are saved through water in the Old Testament, how much more powerful, after the incarnation, is the saving experience of being "born of water and spirit" in the New Testament?
Yet, according to Pastor Carlo, "No person was ever saved through these waters."
Let's begin with the Old Testament types to see if this is true.
In Genesis, we witness the spirit hovering over the waters from which came the first creation. As John's gospel emphasizes, we become "new creations" through our salvation in Christ. If we become "new creations" when we are saved, should we be surprised if we are recreated and saved by Christ through the waters and spirit of baptism? "No person was ever saved through these waters?" Really?
When the flood waters cleansed the earth (from sin) and a dove of peace (the Holy Spirit) landed on the ark (a type of the Church) which contained Noah's family (the covenant people of God), certainly these people had been saved through these waters. "No person was ever saved through these waters!" Really?
What about Moses? Wasn't Israel (the covenant people of God) released from Egyptian bondage (sin) through the waters of the Red Sea and saved when those same waters washed the Egyptians away? "No person was ever saved through these waters!" Really?
Then Jesus comes along and tells Nicodemus that we must be "born again" or "born from above" (the Greek word "anothen" could mean either "again" or "from above"), and then offers a parallel literary construction to clarify: "no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit." Now, let's look at the context to try to get an idea about what Jesus was referring to by the words "water and the Spirit."
What was occurring in John 1? BAPTISM, specifically that of John the Baptist. (Recall how he addresses Jesus: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" These words have occurred at the high point of every Catholic Mass for centuries.) And what happens when Jesus is baptized in water? The SPIRIT (in the form of a dove) comes to rest on Him. Water and Spirit, together just like they were at the first creation.
What does John notice in John 2? That the water Jesus was going to turn into wine was contained in the the six stone jars used in the Jewish rites of purification, an Old Testament type of BAPTISM.
What does Jesus say in John 3? We must be born of WATER AND the SPIRIT. Again, water and spirit are inseparably united here.
What do the disciples immediately begin doing in John 3 after Jesus speaks these words? They go about BAPTIZING.
And in John 4, how does John frame Jesus's announcement that he will provide a "spring of [living] water welling up to eternal life?" BAPTISM.
If we are to interpret Jesus's words in context, our Lord teaches that we are "born from above" in baptism. We are saved in baptism, according to Jesus.
While I have no reason to think that Pastor Carlo would knowingly teach against what Jesus himself taught, I can not follow his fallible interpretation of the Bible when it comes to baptism. "No person was ever saved through these waters." Sorry, but according to Jesus, one must be baptized to enter the kingdom of heaven. (Of course, we understand Jesus to mean that we are ordinarily saved through baptism. In extraordinary circumstances, such as the good thief on the cross experienced, when baptism is not possible but desired, one may still be saved. If one knows that Jesus wants to save us through baptism, yet one refuses to be baptized, then this person doesn't truly demonstrate the obedience of faith that is necessary for salvation anyway.)
Side note: Ironically, the popular phrase "born again" uses the meaning of "anothen" that Jesus likely did not have in mind. See John's discussion beginning in John 3:31, which draws out the contrast between being "from above" and "of the earth." Notice the emphasis John puts on the testimony of he who is born from above in these verses. What is this testimony? John 19:30-35 and 1 John 5:6-10 bring together the three elements: the water, the blood, and the Spirit. As Catholics, our testimony-the assurance of our salvation-is not an experience we had many years ago. It is the testimony of the spirit, water, and blood in our hearts: the sacramental oaths that Christ swears on our behalf. And as the earliest fathers of Christianity understood, the water and blood that flowed from Christ's side after he gave up his Spirit so that we could receive it are powerful symbols of Baptism and the Eucharist. Just as the old Eve was born out of Adam's side, so is the Church born out of the side of Christ, the New Adam, on the cross.
So, we find the first creation coming out of water and spirit. We find water and spirit together when Noah was saved through water, which corresponds to the baptism that now saves us (1 Peter 3:21). We see Israel being saved through water. We hear Jesus saying we must be saved ("born from above") through water and the spirit, which in context refers to baptism. We hear Paul in Romans 6 tell us (through a rhetorical question) that as many of us "who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death" and that "we were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." All of this reveals the wisdom and beauty of our Father's plan of salvation from the first verses of Genesis all the way to the salvation of our very own soul, and all Pastor Carlo can say is that "no person was ever saved through these waters."
Sadly, the Baptist concept of baptism washes away the entire drama and meaning of salvation history before Christ outlined above, which was to prepare our hearts to understand the spiritual realities of Christ's kingdom like baptism. When Catholics stand at the baptismal font, they stand at the true waters of creation over which the spirit hovers, of which the original waters of creation were a shadow. When Catholics stand at the baptismal font, they stand in the true ark, and they pass through the true flood waters which wash away sin and bring the true dove of peace, all of which were foreshadowed in Noah's experience. When Catholics stand at the baptismal font, they behold the true Red Sea, and the waters part to allow them into the promised land of heaven. What Moses witnessed was only a type of the reality to come. All of these Old Testament events should make our hearts burn within us with joy and gladness about the most awesome and sacred gift of baptism.
"No person was ever saved through these waters!" Really?
The unfortunate mistake Pastor Carlo makes is that he drives a wedge the size of the Titanic between two things that we see inseparably united throughout the Bible: water and spirit. Of course the Catholic Church does not teach that the water saves us. No, it is the spirit hovering over the waters, making them "living" (John 4) and "clean" (Ezekiel 36:25), that allows them to save us. Further, baptism, if it were a mere human work, also would be powerless to save us. Pastor Carlo misunderstands what the Catholic Church has taught clearly for two thousand years: that the sacraments are CHRIST'S WORKS, not our own. The sacraments apply the free gift of Christ's grace to our souls, grace which was merited not by us but by Jesus himself through his passion, death, and resurrection. Unfortunately, Pastor Carlo drives a second Titanic-sized wedge between the power of Calvary and the power of the sacraments, even though the Catholic Church has always taught that the power of the sacraments is nothing less than the very power of Calvary applied by Christ to our souls for our salvation! The sacraments are the covenantal oaths that Christ swears on our behalf!
As Protestant convert Scott Hahn has pointed out, the Hebrew word "shaba" from which the Latin "sacramentum" is derived means to "swear an oath" or "to seven oneself." In ancient times, swearing an oath established a covenant. The ancient Hebrews understood that when God created the world in six days and blessed the seventh, he was swearing an oath with Adam, Eve, and all of humanity. The breaking of this oath required the establishment of a new covenant, which was led up to by a series of preparatory covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. As the mediator of the new covenant, Jesus swears an oath through the sacraments, and it is Jesus's promise that we rely on for our salvation. When Jesus saves us through baptism, sealing our souls with the Holy Spirit, he is swearing an oath that we will be saved as long as we remain faithful to him.
Here's another thought: how is "praying the sinner's prayer" not a human work while "baptism" is a human work? Isn't there a bit of a double standard here? Actually, both are things humans DO. Believing itself is a human work, just like baptism is an act humans carry out. In both believing and baptism, however, we recognize that from the beginning to the end, it is grace that is doing the working. It is grace that enables us to believe. It is grace that does the work of baptism through us and on us. Yet, does Paul say: "as many of you who prayed the sinner's prayer were buried with Christ?" No, as many of us who are baptized have been buried with Christ. While Baptism is something humans do, it is Christ's work on our soul, not our work on our soul. Salvation is through Christ alone by grace alone. In fact, Catholics have taught for two thousand years that we are saved by God's grace alone. Nothing we humans do apart from God's grace can merit one millisecond of heaven. (Even the Council of Trent, the famous counter-reformation, taught this!) Christ merits salvation for us through our faithful cooperation with his grace--and it is even his grace that allows us to faithfully cooperate!
Protestants beware: if anyone tells you that the Catholic Church teaches otherwise, challenge them to show you just ONE church document that says we are saved by something other than Christ alone and by God's grace alone. And remember: baptism and the other sacraments, as well as any good works the Christian performs, are not our works. They are Christ's works on us and through us, wrought 100% by God's grace and for his glory. The classic strategy that Protestant apologists use to pull Catholics out of the church is to drive a false wedge between the sacraments and good works on the one hand, and grace on the other. If this strategy honestly captured the Catholic teaching on the subject, that would be one thing. But it simply doesn't. People who accept this false caricature of the Catholic Church are, at best, provided a flimsy excuse not to join Her. At worst, these people sadly and unwittingly despise the very channels Christ established through which to apply the grace won at Calvary to the souls of the believer. The stakes could not be higher, and it falls on every Christian to make sure, for the sake of their souls, that they are not following a false teacher on this issue.
In sum, baptism in the New Covenant replaces circumcision in the Old Covenant as the rite of initiation into the covenant family of God. In baptism, our hearts are circumcised and we are made a new creation through water and the Spirit. "In Him [Jesus] you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which [meaning "in baptism"] you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead (Colossians 2:11-12).
Does this mean that faith must be present? Yes. If you are past the age of reason, you must believe and be open to the grace Christ wants to bestow on you through the sacrament. But we are not saved by faith. Faith is like turning on the spigot through which grace can flow into our lives, both through the sacraments and through other encounters with God. We are saved by grace alone through faith. How then, can the Catholic Church baptize infants, if they are not yet at a stage where they can have faith? While infant baptism will be the topic of another posting, suffice it to say the following: since 1) Christ desires all his children to come home to heaven, 2) all of us are born in a state of disgrace, called original sin, that leaves us incapable of entering God's heavenly glory without regeneration, and 3) because God throughout the Bible is as interested in saving families as He is individuals (see Acts 2:39 and elsewhere), God accepts the faith commitment of the family (parents, Godparents, and the Church family) as sufficient for accepting infants into the kingdom of heaven (just like he did with Abraham, who accepted children into the covenant family of God at eight days old...yet salvation was through faith for Abraham just like it is for us). What more beautiful way to affirm that salvation is entirely God's work and God's grace than for Christ to bestow it on a baby who can do nothing but poop! According to the Baptist plan of salvation, the unsaved person has to do at least one thing--confess with his mouth that Jesus is Lord and Savior. By this standard, the Baptist entrance into salvation is more work-based than the typical Catholic one! Moving on: once the baptized child reaches the age of reason, that child must continue in the life of faith in which he was raised, or else he may eventually lose his salvation. (I will discuss infant baptism in greater depth in a later entry, along with the doctrine of eternal security.) In the Christian life, we must continually grow through faith and good works (both of which are the result of grace working in our lives), persevering until the end. Babies are not guaranteed salvation and can lose their salvation like the rest of us by turning away from God and rejecting (even neglecting, as Hebrews 2:3 puts it) his salvation.
One question remains to be addressed: what did the early church teach about baptism? What did the students of the apostles such as St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian, and others teach about the "washing of regeneration" (Titus 3:5). Wouldn't it be great to ask St. John about the meaning of Jesus's words in John 3? Why not see if the writings of St. Ignatius, who studied with John for thirty years, shed any light on the topic? After all, is not the water always cleaner and cooler the closer you get to the source (as former Baptist and convert to the Catholic Church Steve Ray likes to put it)? In a game of "telephone," wouldn't you be more likely to get the original message from someone at the beginning of the line than at the end? If you want to be a Bible Christian, doesn't that mean believing how the first Christians who wrote the Bible (and passed on its correct interpretation) believed? Imagine how excited you would be if, at your next Bible study, the invited speaker was introduced as having been a student of the apostles themselves! The good news is that we have the writings of these students, and they can inform us as to what the Bible means. Their words don't substitute words of Scripture, but they do help explain what the authors of Scripture meant by the words of Scripture.
Rather than make this post any longer, let me simply provide links to internet sources and a book where you can find quotes from the earliest Christian leaders about the meaning of baptism:
1. Catholic Answers Tract: Born Again in Baptism
2. Catholic Answers Tract: Baptismal Grace
3. Tertullian (160-220 A.D.) on Baptism
4. Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church by (Baptist convert) Steve Ray. This book contains an exhaustive survey of all the Bible passages (including 1 Peter 3:21 and others left out of Fairwinds tracts) and the early church fathers on baptism along with hundreds of footnotes and citations. Steve wrote this book as he was converting to the Catholic Church to explain to his family and friends the surprising truth of the Catholic Church's teachings on baptism and the eucharist.