Monday, October 16, 2006

Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?: Part One

Christians Apologetics and Research Ministry ( is one of the most popular Christian apologetics websites on the internet. Unfortunately, they have a whole section devoted to the refutation of Catholic doctrine. One of their articles attempts to refute the Catholic belief regarding the necessity of baptism (you can read it here). What follows is my response to that article. For the sake of brevity, I am quoting only the most relevant portions.
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A covenant is a pact or agreement between two or more parties. [. . .] If you fail to understand that God works covenantally and that He uses signs as manifestations of his covenants (rainbow, circumcision, communion, etc.) then you will not be able to understand where baptism fits in God's covenant system.
A covenant is not just a pact or agreement between two people. That's a contract. A covenant is the establishment of a filial relationship between two parties. There's a big difference. At any rate, I agree full well that God works covenantly with his people. The necessity of baptism does not contradict this.
Second, you need to know what baptism is. It is an outward representation of an inward reality. For example, it represents the reality of the inward washing of Christ's blood upon the soul. That is why it is used in different ways. [. . .] (Rom. 6:3-5) [. . .] (Gal. 3:27) [. . .] (Acts 22:16) [. . .] (1 Cor. 10:2) [. . .] (1 Cor. 12:13). Also, baptism is one of the signs and seals of the Covenant of Grace that was instituted by Jesus. It is in this sense a sacrament. A sacrament is a visible manifestation of something spoken. It is also said to be a visible sign of an inward grace.
Agreed! I wonder if he knows how indebted he is to St. Augustine for the definition of a sacrament he has formulated here.
The Covenant of Grace is the covenant between God and Man where God promises to Man eternal life. It is based upon the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and the condition is faith in Jesus Christ. As the Communion Supper replaced Passover, baptism, in like manner, replaces circumcision. "They represent the same spiritual blessings that were symbolized by circumcision and Passover in the old dispensation" (Berkhoff, Lewis, Systematic Theology, 1988, p. 620.).
Circumcision was the initiatory rite into the Abrahamic covenant; it did not save. A covenant is a pact or agreement between two or more parties and that is exactly what the Abrahamic covenant was. [. . .] God later instructed Abraham to circumcise not only every adult male, but also 8 day old male infants as a sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:9-13). If the children were not circumcised, they were not considered to be under the promissory Abrahamic covenant. [. . .] But at the same time we must understand that circumcision did not guarantee salvation to all who received it.
Besides his minimalistic definition of a covenant, I agree with all of this.
It was a rite meant only for the people of God, who were born into the family of God (who were then the Jews).
Technically, this is incorrect. Household slaves were circumcised (Gen 17:12), as well as foreigners who wished to partake of the Passover celebration (Exo 12:48). This circumcision of non-Jews points to the eventual universality of the New Covenant, which is available to all through baptism.
infants were entered into a covenant relationship with God -- through their parents.
In the New Testament, circumcision is mentioned many times. But with respect to this topic it is specifically mentioned in Col. 2:11-12: "In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead" (NIV). In these verses, baptism and circumcision are related. Baptism replaces the Old Testament circumcision because 1) there was a New Covenant in the communion supper (Luke 22:20), and 2) in circumcision there was the shedding of blood but in baptism no blood is shed. This is because the blood of Christ has been shed.
If you understand that baptism is a covenant sign, then you can see that it is a representation of the reality of Christ circumcising our hearts (Rom. 2:29; Col. 2:11-12). It is our outward proclamation of the inward spiritual blessing of regeneration. It comes after faith which is a gift of God (Rom. 12:3) and the work of God (John 6:28).

Now, lets look at what we have affirmed so far:

1. God works covenantly with his people
2. Baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality, an inward grace
3. The condition for entrance into the Covenant of Grace is faith in Jesus
4. One entered into the Abrahamic covenant through circumcision
5. Circumcision did not guarantee salvation
6. Infants entered into a covenant relationship with God through their parents
7. Baptism replaces circumcision
8. Baptism is a representation of the reality of Christ circumcising our hearts
9. Baptism comes after faith

With all this agreement, it may be hard to see where we differ. I think the difference lies in a misunderstanding of what signs are, and a failure to draw out all the implications of the parallel between baptism and circumcision.

First of all, if baptism replaces circumcision (#7) and one previously entered into covenant with God through circumcision (#4), wouldn't this mean that it is now through baptism that one enters into a covenant with God? In other words, circumcision was not just an act they performed which symbolized the entrance into the covenant that they had already obtained (through faith or some other means). Instead, circumcision was that entrance into the covenant. One became a son of God and a member of his people through circumcision. Baptism parallels circumcision. So, today, we become the offspring of Abraham and heirs to the promise through baptism, just as the Jews did through circumcision (cf. Gal 3:26-29). Since it actually effects entrance into the covenant, it can't be simply symbolic (in the modern sense of the word).

Secondly, look at #2: Baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality, an inward grace. It would be helpful here to know how ancient peoples understood symbols. The word symbol in the original Greek is derived from the word sym-ballein, which means "to bring together". Thus, as Carlo Siri points out, "The symbolon was originally the broken half of an object which, when brought together with its other half, could serve as sign of recognition" (Carlo Siri, Images of Truth: From Sign to Symbol, translated by Massimo Verdicchio, New Jersey: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1993, page 105). In other words, the symbol and the thing symbolized are mystically one and the same reality.

In fact even the Protestant scholar Adolf von Harnack recognized this truth, and that is why in reference to the Eucharist he said that, "The symbol is the mystery and the mystery was not conceivable without a symbol," and also, "What we now-a-days understand by symbol is a thing which is not that which it represents; at that time [i.e., in the ancient Church] symbol denoted a thing which, in some kind of way, really is what it signifies" (Adolph von Harnack, History of Dogma, New York: Dover Publications, 1961, volume 2, page 144). Consequently, the sacraments in Catholic theology are symbols in the ancient sense of the word, and not in the modern Cartesian sense, because they render present the mystery that they signify.

Thirdly, pt. #3 says that the condition for entrance into the covenant of grace is faith in Jesus. A belief in the efficacious nature of baptism, and its necessity for salvation does not deny the role of faith. Afterall, faith is what compels one to be baptized (#9) and is what brings infants to the sacrament as well (#6). Without it, men are not drawn to the waters of baptism. Thus, I affirm both the necessity of faith and the necessity of baptism.

Finally, I want to address pt. #5. You seemed to be suggesting earlier that, since baptism parallels circumcision and circumcision didn't save, then baptism doesn't save. But, this ignores one important point. Circumcision didn't save because of the nature of the covenant into which it granted entrance. However, since we now have a covenant of grace, a covenant that does save, when we enter into it through baptism, we enter into salvation.
Third, the Bible says that it is the gospel that saves. "By this gospel you are saved..." (1 Cor. 15:2). Also, Rom. 1:16 says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile."
Right, but how does it save? Do you just hear it and you are automatically saved? If that were the case we could just play it on a big loudspeaker and effect the mass salvation of thousands and thousands of people. But, we know it doesn't work that way. The gospel saves when people accept it and everything that goes along with it. In other words, it saves when people make an act of faith in response to it, or in affirmation of it. I assert that the act of faith in question is baptism. Note, baptism comes after faith (#9). As the Catechism says, it is "the sacrament of faith" (CCC, #1236, 1253, 1992).

To be continued....


Danny Garland Jr. said...

Hey good blog you've got here. Are you studying at Franciscan? What's your major?

I've been dealing with this same issue on my blog with a couple of evangelical/calvinist baptists (they can't even tell you what they are).
If you scroll down to the bottom, that's where the current debate is going.

phatcatholic said...

hey bro........yea, I go to Franciscan. I'm a grad Theology and Catechetics student. Maybe I'll see you around.


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