Have you ever had a conversation with a Protestant who rejects water baptism as necessary for salvation? This belief stems from the false faith-alone doctrine taught by some Protestant churches that nothing other than faith in Jesus Christ’s work on the cross is necessary. But shouldn’t faith in Jesus Christ include faith in all He taught and did?
Obedience to Christ is Necessary
An article, Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?, from the popular Protestant website Got Questions states, “It is our contention that baptism is an important step of obedience for a Christian, but we adamantly reject baptism as being required for salvation.” The article continues,
Requiring anything in addition to faith in Jesus Christ for salvation is a works-based salvation. To add anything to the gospel is to say that Jesus’ death on the cross was not sufficient to purchase our salvation. To say that baptism is necessary for salvation is to say we must add our own good works (emphasis added) and obedience to Christ’s death in order to make it sufficient for salvation.
This article will explain why baptism is necessary for salvation and why it is not “our own good work.” If you are wondering whether obedience is necessary for salvation, the answer is an emphatic YES! (John 3:36) After initial justification through faith in baptism (CCC 1271), we must not return to a state of enmity with God by committing grievous sins or refusing to do the good works that God has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10).
Two Catholic Stand articles, Good Works or Once Saved, Always Saved and The Necessity of Good Works, cover obedience after initial justification, but I wanted to briefly address it because it is mentioned in the Got Questions article.
The Necessity of Baptism
Our Catechism states, “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” (CCC 1257).
Thus, the Catholic Church teaches that baptism is ordinarily necessary for salvation. However, an extraordinary (i.e., outside the ordinary) means of salvation also exists for those who, through no fault of their own, have never heard of Christ or the necessity of baptism, and yet humbly repent of their sins. Sacred Scripture has much to say about baptism, but we will focus on only a few passages.
Jesus, replying to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus responds, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3-5).
In this passage, Jesus unambiguously expresses the necessity of baptism. In fact, He equates being “born anew” (colloquially, “born again”) with being born of water and the Spirit. Do not be fooled by the common Protestant objection that “water” in this passage means amniotic fluid.
When Jesus says, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit,” in response to Nicodemus’ question about being born when old, He is rejecting Nicodemus’ misunderstanding that one would have to somehow reenter his mother’s womb. This passage alone proves the necessity of baptism, but let us explore a few additional passages before moving to baptism as a work.
During his visit to the house of Cornelius in Acts 10:47, Peter asks, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” His rhetorical question implies the intrinsic need for water baptism.
Also in Acts, Ananias says to Paul, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). In Mark 16:16, Jesus says, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved….” These verses indisputably show the need for sins to be washed away by water baptism.
Here is the principle insight of these passages: We do not tell God how to save us. He tells us how to be saved. Faith in God’s grace through baptism is, thus, the normal means of initial justification.
Baptism Is Not a Human Work
In St. Paul’s Letter to Titus, Paul explains, “…he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration…” (Titus 3:5-7). Regeneration means to be recreated or born again. And how is being born again accomplished? By washing. Through baptism, we are washed with water while simultaneously being renewed in the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3.
Aside from being the pithiest bible passage on the process of justification, the above passage indisputably shows that baptism is not a human work. Before saying that we are saved by the “washing of regeneration,” Paul says, “not because of deeds done by us in righteousness….” Thus, baptism is not a deed done by us in righteousness. It is not a work of self-justification.
Just so there is no confusion as to how baptism washes away sins, let us turn to 1 Peter 3:20-21. Here, St. Peter discusses the connections between baptism and Noah and his family being saved by water that washed away evil people from the earth. He says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this (the flood), 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.”
The flood was not a human work; it was an act of God. Similarly, baptism is not a human work. It is God’s work! Although water signifies what grace accomplishes, God is the one who washes away sins through baptism. To reject this dogma is to deny the flood and the saving of Noah and his family by it.
Similarly, given Peter’s above explanation, rejecting the effects of baptism is to refuse God’s forgiveness through it. Thus, to reject baptism’s efficacy is to deny Him who commanded baptism.
Baptism’s Connection to the Entire Faith
Additionally, since baptism, which forgives sins at the beginning of the Christian journey, is not a human work, confession to a priest, which forgives sins during the Christian journey, is not a human work either. Auricular confession simply continues what baptism begins if/when a Christian lapses into mortal sin (CCC 1425-26).
The Got Questions article I cited at the beginning of this column dismisses the necessity of water baptism and, thus, rejects Christ’s and His Church’s 2000-year teaching on this matter. Faith in Christ must include faith in all He taught and did, not his Crucifixion and Resurrection only. Although Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection are the pinnacles of His earthly deeds, we are called to have faith in the entire Christ. This faith includes faith in baptism’s sanctifying effects.