Protestants tend to view Baptism as a symbol that doesn’t actually do anything, whereas Catholics view Baptism as a Sacrament that truly saves us. Strangely, both sides are right… it just depends upon which Baptisms we’re referring to.
I. The Protestant View of Baptism
Anytime we’re talking about Protestantism, it’s too simplistic to say the Protestant view, since there’s no Church in Protestantism capable of defining beliefs binding upon all members. Instead, “Protestantism” is more or less a catch-all for various religious movements that are Christian but aren’t Catholic or Orthodox.
Nevertheless, there are certain commonly-held views that many Protestants hold to, including a belief that Baptism is merely symbolic. This is explained clearly on the website of Hillsong megachurch:
Baptism is a symbol. It’s meant to show the world that that you love, trust, and have put your hope in Christ. It’s like a wedding ring…
Let’s say I’m not married right now, but if I put a wedding ring on my finger, would that make me married? No, of course not. Similarly, I can be baptized in a church, but that doesn’t make me a true believer in Christ. Imagine that I really was married, though. My husband and I really did go through the marriage ceremony, but I just didn’t have my ring on my finger. Would that mean I wasn’t married? No way, of course I would still be married. Similarly, I can be a believer in Christ, but not baptized, and my sins are still paid for and forgiven by God. [….]
Baptism does not make you a believer; it shows that you already are one! Baptism does not ‘save’ you; only your faith in Christ does that.
So Baptism symbolizes our repentance, but it doesn’t cause it in any way, just as wearing a wedding ring doesn’t cause you to become married. Given this, you might be wondering, why bother getting baptized at all? The pastor of Hillsong baptized Justin Bieber in a bathtub. Why go to all that trouble if you don’t really need it? Hillsong’s website explains that it’s because “Water baptism is an act of faith and obedience to the commands of Christ.” In other words, Christ was baptized and told us to do it, so we just do it.
II. The Catholic View of Baptism
From the Catholic perspective, that description of Baptism is impoverished, reducing it to a sort of showy religious ritual that we obey legalistically. Instead, we see four things happening in Baptism:
- We are cleansed from our sins;
- We are made children of God, true Christians;
- The Holy Spirit enters our hearts;
- We are saved, justified and sanctified.
We’ll get into why Catholics think that Baptism does each of those things in a little bit, but now, suffice it to say that it’s clear within the Catholic view why Baptism matters: it’s the doorway to the Church and to Heaven. In other words, the Catholic has an easier time than the Protestant in explaining why Jesus and the Apostles and St. Paul focus so much on Baptism. But which view is biblically supported?
III. The Two Baptisms in Scripture
It turns out that both “Protestant baptism” and Catholic Baptism are present in the New Testament, but in very different ways. At the start of his Gospel (Mk. 1:4-5), St. Mark shares how:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
This is a symbolic baptism: it’s a public way for people to acknowledge that they’ve sinned and need repentance and to turn back to God. There’s not an idea that it does anything, actually forgiving sins or making you a Christian or anything of the sort. But this changes with the Baptism of Christ (Mk. 1:9-11):
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
So what seemed like it would be a merely symbolic action ends up being something so much more, with the descent of the Holy Spirit. Christ then sends His own Disciples to Baptize, distinct from what John the Baptist is doing (John 3:22-23). The critical difference is that Christian Baptism actually does something. St. Paul compares and contrasts these two Baptisms in Acts 19:1-7,
While Apol′los was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve of them in all.
There it is explicitly. John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance” that didn’t actually do anything – more or less what Hillsong thinks Christian baptism is. It’s just a work that you perform. But Christian Baptism is so much more, actually bestowing the Holy Spirit.
IV. How Baptism “Works”
So if the difference is that Baptism does something, just what does it do? Let’s return to the four-part list from where I described the Catholic view and see if it’s Scripturally-supported.
Does Baptism cleanse us from our sins? Yes! St. Peter says this to the crowds at the end of his sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2:37-41):
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 your sins; and you shall receive the gift of 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.” And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Ananias is also explicit about this, telling the newly-converted St. Paul “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
Does Baptism make us children of God? Yes! St. Paul says as much in Galatians 3:25-27,
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; 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.
So through Baptism, we become partakers of Jesus Christ, and thereby sons (and daughters) of God. And if you pay careful attention, you’ll see that the Scriptures treat Baptism as the doorway to the Church (which is to say, the means by which we become part of the Body of Christ, and become sons and daughters of God). Notice that St. Luke, in Acts 2:41 says that ‘those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” In other words, he treats Baptism as the thing that adds souls to the Kingdom. Jesus is explicit about this in John 3:5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Does the Holy Spirit dwell within us in Baptism? Yes! Once again, listen to St. Peter’s words, “Repent, and be baptized every 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.” (Acts 2:38). And notice that this is the key difference between John’s baptism and Christ’s, a difference drawn out by St. Paul in Acts 19:1-7.
Does Baptism save us? Yes! St. Paul says so in Titus 3:3-7,
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
The reason many Protestants reject the various Bible verses explicitly talking about the salvific role of Baptism seems to be that they view Baptism legalistically, as something that we have to do for God, simply because He commands it. But St. Paul describes Baptism as the way that God freely saves us – that is, he views it as a Sacrament, a thing that God does for us, rather than a work that we do for us.
With that contrast in mind, listen to Christ’s command in Mark 16:15-16, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” If St. Paul is right, that makes sense: God saves us through Baptism. But Protestantism can’t make sense of this command, because it sounds like Christ is saying we are saved by works apart from faith, so you end up finding Protestants perverting the verse until it means that if you believe, you’ll be saved and get baptized, rather than what Christ actually says, which is that if you believe and get baptized you’ll be saved.
In 1 Peter 3, St. Peter mentions Noah’s Ark (in which salvation comes through water and through wood), and then says “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” (1 Peter 3:21). Hold that verse up alongside Hillsong’s claim that “Baptism does not ‘save’ you,” and you’ll realize that Scripture and Protestantism can’t both be right about Christian Baptism.
One of the clearest passages depicting all four of these elements of Baptism is actually from the Old Testament, in which God tells how in the New Covenant, He will do the following (Ezekiel 36:24-28):
For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
Here we see, all wrapped up at once, how Baptism (1) cleanses us from all of our impurities, (2) makes us God’s own People, (3) involves God sending His Holy Spirit into our hearts; and (4) saves us, cleansing and sanctifying us. These promises are fulfilled, not in the baptism of John the Baptist, but in the Baptism of Jesus Christ, and it’s tragic that many baptized Christians are unaware of the grandeur of the gift that they’ve been given in this Sacrament.