Yesterday I began a brief little series on the issues raised in the Protestant Reformation, inspired in part by a thought provoking booked entitled Was the Reformation a Mistake? In that work, Catholic scholar Matthew Levering and Protestant scholar Kenneth Vanhoozer exchange thoughts regarding the central issues that separate them. I’m chiming in with my own reflections, beginning with yesterday’s post on the issue of authority. In this post, I want to address another topic – baptism.
The Catholic View of Baptism
In his explanation of the seven sacraments of Catholicism, Levering refers to the following passages in his comments on baptism:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:26-27)
From these passages, Levering concludes:
Baptism unites us with Christ’s death, but in a way that involves not only the sacrament – water baptism – but also faith. (p. 101)
When Levering says that faith is also involved in the sacrament of baptism, he does not necessarily mean that the one being baptized has faith at that moment. Indeed, in Catholic teaching, infants should be baptized, and then later catechized as they develop personal faith:
…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, paragraph 1250)
In Catholic teaching, the faith that is exercised at baptism is that of the entire community:
Baptism is the sacrament of faith. But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop. The catechumen or the godparent is asked: “What do you ask of God’s Church?” The response is: “Faith!” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1253)
So if I could summarize the Catholic view of baptism, I would say that it holds that salvation is by baptism but without the personal faith of the one being baptized.
The Protestant View of Baptism
What is the Protestant view of baptism? That’s a difficult question to answer since Protestantism doesn’t have a centralized source of authority to speak for all Protestants. Those in the Reformed tradition tend to see baptism as a “sign and seal” of God’s covenant with the elect, including infants. Those from a Baptist background see baptism as a public identification with Christ and the church reserved for adults who have already been saved by faith.
Vanhoozer combines these views in his critique of Levering’s position:
Nor is it the baptismal alone that unites us with Christ’s saving death, but the Holy Spirit through faith in the word (cf. Gal 2:20). Scripture presents baptism and the Lord’s Supper as signs and seals – not the effective (or even instrumental) causes – of salvation. That epithet is reserved for Christ’s death and resurrection alone. What is at stake in saying this, of course, is the gospel. (p. 218)
In contrast to the Catholic view of salvation by baptism without personal faith, Vanhoozer argues for salvation by personal faith without baptism. This is also the approach taken by popular Protestant blogger Tim Challies:
The Roman Catholic view of baptismal regeneration must be rejected outright. It teaches that God’s salvation and grace are conferred through baptism, so that “through Baptism we are free from sin and reborn as sons of God.” This is a rejection of the New Testament emphasis that, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9) and, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
So which is it – salvation by baptism without personal faith, or salvation by faith without baptism?
Faith, Baptism, and Salvation
I believe this is a false choice. In Scripture, the basis of salvation is the death of Christ, the means of salvation is personal faith, and the time of salvation is baptism. Consider this text from Paul:
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)
Here Paul describes baptism as a “circumcision made without hands,” the removal of sinfulness (“the body of the flesh”). And he says that this happens “in him” – in Christ – “by the circumcision of Christ.” So Christ’s death is the basis of our salvation.
But Paul also says that we receive this spiritual circumcision “having been buried with him in baptism.” In baptism, in other words, we are united with Christ, sharing in his death and resurrection. That is the time when we receive the saving effects of Jesus’ death.
This is not at all inconsistent with faith, however. In fact, Paul says that our resurrection to life in baptism takes place “through faith in the powerful working of God.” Faith is the means by which we grasp the promise of God to save us in baptism by Christ’s death.
If we confuse the basis, means, and time of salvation, the biblical data will never make any sense to us, since at different times Scripture ascribes salvation to the death of Christ (Romans 5:9), to faith (Ephesians 2:8), and to baptism (1 Peter 3:21). We don’t have to choose between these, though, if we recognize the role of each in redemption.
Let me close with an illustration. As a lot of you know, my wife is undergoing treatment for cancer. Every other week we have an appointment go to a clinic where she receives an infusion of chemo. So far, that treatment has held the cancer at bay. Now, would it make sense to say that Kristi is saved by the chemo but not the infusion? Or by the chemo but not the appointment? Of course not. The chemo is the basis of her treatment, the infusion is the means of her treatment, and the appointment is the time of her treatment.
In the same way, the basis of our salvation is the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. Just as Kristi adds nothing to her chemo, we can add nothing to the accomplishment of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Faith is the way we grasp this work, just as the infusion is the means by which Kristi’s chemo is administered. And baptism is the time that God has designated that this happens, as the time when our faith in God’s powerful work has its effect (just as Kristi’s appointment is the time when the life-saving chemo is infused).
In my judgment, Catholic teaching is right on target in identifying the connection between baptism and salvation. Where it goes amiss in my view is in its understanding of whether the one being baptized must have personal faith. Protestants (again, broadly speaking) are right in seeing the need for personal faith as the means of salvation, but overreact to Catholic teaching in the devaluing of baptism. I think Martin Luther captured the harmony of biblical teaching very nicely:
Thus you see plainly that Baptism is not a work which we do but is a treasure which God gives us and faith grasps, just as the Lord Christ upon the cross is not a work but a treasure comprehended and offered to us in the Word and received by faith. (Luther’s Large Catechism 37)