The debate on salvation and baptism between Catholics, mainline denominations, evangelicals of various stripes, and other Christian sects has always fascinated me. Outside of some liberal mainline denominations, most Christian churches share two things in common: Jesus is the Messiah and the Scriptures mean what they say as the inspired Word of God.
Our Enemy is good at injecting men and women full of pride, spite, and divisiveness into our churches to divide us and cause schism. Our human depravity (our Old Man – Col. 3:9), even as believers, rears its ugly head in the institutional church too often. Our churches (little “c”) often hamstring the Church (capital “C”) with man-centered disputes. One of the age-old ways we are complicit in this division is the perpetual debate between Catholics and protestants and even between mainline protestants and evangelicals regarding how we are saved, especially surrounding the issue of baptism.
Soteriology, or the doctrines of salvation, is so contested between segments of the Church, it’s amazing anyone outside the Church would know what to believe if they wanted to. I’ve had Catholics tell me I’m not part of the “Church” because I have not been baptized in the Catholic Church and can therefore not take communion with Catholics. I’ve had Lutherans tell me they aren’t sure if I’m saved because I wasn’t baptized the way they would have been. So what role does baptism play?
Many Catholics are ignorant of the Catholic teachings on baptism and salvation. They clearly believe baptism is a Sacrament and is required for salvation (unless you have not had the opportunity) but too often believe that it has to happen in a prescribed manner in a Roman Catholic Church to really count.
Let’s look at some passages from the Catholic Catechism (any emphasis is mine):
“1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. 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.”
“1258 The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.”
“1259 For 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.”
“1260 Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.” Every man who is 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. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”
In number 1257, it references John 3:5 after stating that the Lord Himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. They hinge everything on that passage. Read it. The whole story of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, when taken in context, is about belief, not baptism! We are born of water (physical birth) and then of Spirit (faith conversion). If the physical act (or Sacrament) of Baptism was what He was talking about, would He not have clarified that fact when Nicodemus asked for just such a clarification? Instead, we are told that whoever “believes” will have eternal life. Jesus reiterates that the second birth is belief/faith! This may have turned on a light in Nicodemus as he ran through the Law, the historical accounts, and the prophets and remembered that God was clear He desired faith, not the blood of animals or other works.
You can check out the Greek word used for “believe” in the John 3 passage at Blue Letter Bible. It doesn’t imply anything but a transformation of the heart…not an outward sign like baptism.
So I believe, with all due respect to my Catholic brethren, that they – like Nicodemus – struggle to get past the demands of tradition and the needs of the institution to see the plain words of Jesus on this subject: believe! He’s not calling us to lean on any work, action, or ceremony.
The very fact that the Vatican teaches that an un-baptised person can be saved or that those ignorant of the requirement but “seeks truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved” is proof that Catholics, although misled on baptism in general, do not teach that you have to be Catholic to be saved.
Baptism is not the action Jesus focused on in his ministry. He focused on belief! He didn’t tell those he healed to go get baptized. As a matter of fact, he often told them to tell no one and go about their business. Baptism doesn’t save anyone in my reading of the Scriptures. Jesus, Paul, and the Law would have been more clear if it does! If you moved to sections 1267 to 1271 of the Catholic Catechism, you get to the real reason the institutional church teaches baptism is necessary for salvation, in my humble opinion (membership and tithes).
Lutheran, Anglican, and a few other denominations share this view that baptism saves and this is a remnant of Roman Catholic teaching carried on by Martin Luther and others whose initial goals were to reform the Catholic Church, not split from it. The Church of Christ and the Methodist Church also teach some form salvation through baptism or spiritual transformation through it.
So what is baptism for? I fall more in line with the Westminster Confession’s definition of baptism than I do with the Catholic catechism. I believe that the following excerpt from the Westminster Confession puts more power in baptism than the Scriptures do and I don’t believe the baptism of infants has any Biblical basis, but it sums up the overall purpose rather well:
“CHAPTER XXVIII. Of Baptism.
I. Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, or his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his Church until the end of the world.
II. The outward element to be used in the sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the gospel, lawfully called thereunto.
III. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.
IV. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized.
V. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.
VI. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinancy the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.
VII. The sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered to any person.”
The key is that in section V it is clear that it saves no one. I don’t even believe it is a sin to ignore it anymore than I think baptizing infants is helpful but…whatever. The confession isn’t perfect nor is it Scripture any more than any catechism is but it points to the divisions within the Church on the subject.
Others in the Christian faith note that Paul never mentions baptism or any requirement for baptism to be saved. Interesting!
I was baptized as a teenager in the Pacific ocean at Long Beach, California with my family. I was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and I took the act of being immersed in baptism very seriously. I am a Christ-follower who clings to Scripture over church traditions instituted by men. I take Jesus’ command to love God and love my neighbor seriously, and therefore believe I’m as much a member of the Holy “Catholic” Church as any devout Roman Catholic, Protestant, or isolated jungle inhabitant who is following Jesus as He has been revealed to him. I also agree with the Apostle Paul when he cautions believers to take communion seriously in 1 Cor. 11. In this way, I am confused and frustrated by religious people who would question my salvation; deny me the ability to participate in communion with fellow members of His Church; or share in any other act of fellowship, ministry, or sacrament laid out in the Scriptures. I don’t see a separate kid’s table at the Lord’s Supper for those that don’t baptize the “right” way. If the Catholic teaching that church tradition is equal to the Scriptures is a stumbling block of fellowship between Catholics and other believers, isn’t the burden on Catholics to address their offense? Why should they expect me to compromise on extra-Biblical matters like traditions of men (aka: church)?
Institutional Churches have long instituted traditions that serve the institution. Purgatory, Pontifical bulls, indulgences, veneration of saints and relics, religious wars, schism, Inquisitions, complex leadership hierarchy, etc. Organized religion generally serves the church, not the Church. I’ll stick with what I see in the Scriptures.
1 Corinthians 1:10-17 addresses the issue of salvation, baptism, and unity beautifully. Paul made it clear that he was was not sent to the Corinthians to baptize, but to proclaim the Gospel. He took it a step further and said that strife over this issue is wrong. I stand ready to accept variation in teachings on Baptism within a Biblical framework. Are you? Being divided on the basics of salvation has to be something that grieves the heart of God more than most anything else. I’ll fellowship and co-labor with any true Christ-follower regardless of whether or not he/she goes to a church I understand or agree with. That is the only way I know how to be someone the Vatican would say “…seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it…”