Friday, July 10, 2009

From the Mailbox - Are we saved by baptism or by faith?

A friend writes:

At the RCIA class we discussed baptism – I wasn’t expecting any problems and went along cheerfully to discuss something “I knew about”!!!

Unfortunately I hit a bit of a problem – Salvation by baptism. One said it was “insurance.” I mentioned that we have salvation by faith and baptism is a sign of that faith – but that wasn’t really accepted by anyone present. I just left it and thought – I will discuss this with Denise – she will know. (The group of catechists is made up of cradle Catholics and a couple who became Catholics from a Church of England background.

I know that Noah was “saved through water” and the children of Israel went through “baptism” in the red sea, and perhaps I am just getting my terminologies wrong.

On Sunday (to try and answer some of my queries) I went to a baptism which was being held (five babies that week). They never mentioned salvation – in fact the deacon who was conducting the baptism was at pains to stress bringing up of the child in the faith and a decision later by the child in confirmation. The parents and godparents had had to attend classes and they made promises to that effect.

Do Catholics have salvation by faith – or salvation by baptism – or is it all the same thing?

My Response:

A very good question. I will give you a few thoughts and scripture verses, and I encourage you to write with any questions that may surface even after you have sorted through my email. I am always here. I enjoy responding to these things. And it gives me great joy to know that you are doing a serious study of the faith, wanting to glean as much as you can from RCIA. You have a seeker's heart - and that is a good thing. (Seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all of your heart.)

The first thing I do when I run into something like this (which hasn't happened in quite awhile) is think about the Church in terms of time. The Church is 2000 years old. I ask myself, "Is this something that has been taught from the beginning? Was there a core thinking on this from the Early Church (even if not fully understood)?" Our Lord has said that His Church would always withstand the gates of hell. . . and that the Church is the pillar and foundation of the Truth (I Timothy 3:15). So, what did the Church teach on baptism?

Baptism was taught, from the beginning of the Church, to be the beginning, the way one becomes a child of God. The baptized one (whether young or old) is adopted into the family. If this precious one would die, having been adopted into the family, of course, he or she would be received by God and saved.

So, the first thing I do is think about it this way. If the teaching on baptism has been like this from the very beginning of the Church, then it is trustworthy. When did it change? When did it become more like what I know/knew as a Protestant? Well, even in the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, baptism was taught as the way one becomes a child of God. A "believer's baptism" is a relatively new idea (when one considers the backdrop of 2000 years).

So, then I relax and let myself look deeper. I quiet my soul and let the truth come.

It is scriptural and reasonable that the beginning is baptism. Jesus himself was baptized at the beginning of his ministry. He showed his disciples that they too must enter the waters of baptism. And he told them to go and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Who presented themselves for baptism? Followers. This is true. They obviously believed, or they wouldn't have shown up for baptism. But they "and their entire household with them" (according to the Acts of the Apostles) were baptized. There are four or five places in Holy Scripture where the Greek word for "entire household" is used when referring to baptism. That word, in the Greek, means everyone. Young and old. Free and slave. Infant and aged. The head of the house brought everyone with him. And they all became children of God. (Which doesn't fit with the idea of "believer's baptism" - but more with the idea of Noah, head of house, telling the family that God wants them to come inside the ark in order to be saved through the flood waters.)

Part of the problem is that we were taught that the emphasis was on us. On what we believed. That was how the "change" happened, or so we thought. Certainly, the adults who presented themselves for baptism chose freely, gave their yes (like Noah's yes to God), but the emphasis is on what God does in this sacrament.

It is a work of God, the emphasis on what God is doing. A gift of grace. A sacrament. The idea that this is something I do, I choose, and that is what makes it important and real is a new twist on a 2000 year-old sacrament. Yes, the one who presents himself to be baptized must choose to follow Jesus Christ. But the one who is too young to choose for himself is received by the faith of the parents who present him (like Noah's young grandchildren).

But is that all that is necessary?

As long as there is breath in us, we must continue to follow Christ. We must pick up our cross and follow. We must journey on. We were saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved - this is how Fr. Benedict Groeschel puts it. And I like that. We were saved through the waters of baptism, we are being saved by grace (and our yes to grace on a daily basis) and if we continue on in this life of grace, we will be saved. But-

As we know, children can turn their backs on their parents, adoptive or biological, and reject them - and all that they taught.

And so, the baptized one (whether young or old) must continue to walk in grace (we are saved by grace) and continue to say yes to Jesus. Every time a Catholic dips his fingers in the holy water and crosses himself, he embraces, once again, his baptismal vows. Every time a Catholic passes through Lent, with genuine desire to die to self and rise with Christ, she embraces, once again, her baptismal vows. When a baby is baptized, that little one is part of the family of God. And he or she will continue to grow in the faith - must grow in the faith - and choose daily to pick up his cross. He will renew these vows at Confirmation by repeating the baptismal promises. And in that Sacrament, the Holy Spirit will come upon him to help him and lead him into the calling and work he was uniquely created for. A yes to grace always leads to a gift of faith and a gift of work (grace to believe and grace to fulfill the calling).

So, we are baptized. If we come to the waters on our own two feet, we still must continue to walk in the life of grace. If we come to the waters via the arms of our parents, we still must continue to walk in the life of grace. And God has given us the Catholic Church to be a fountain of grace on an ongoing basis, to help us continue and persevere in this life of grace. The lives of the saints speak to this. We are changed, we are being changed, and we will be changed. Completely. Not covered over. But sanctified. Holy. Worthy to stand before God.

And that begins with the washing away of original sin and personal sin (the baby doesn't have personal sin at baptism but the adult certainly does). And then, we must continue the walk of grace. If we fall and if we fail, with contrition, we must confess. A contrite heart, oh Lord, you will not refuse. And then we keep going in this journey of grace.

You said someone in your RCIA class called it "insurance". That probably isn't the best metaphor. I'd stick with God's covenant with us. Like Noah and the 8 - saved as they passed through the waters. God's work. It's interesting that God saved them. They had faith, but that was also a gift from God - to which they responded. They had a work that had to be done (building the ark), and that work was put before them by God.

We are saved by grace. And this gift of grace enables us to be believe and to do the work we are called to do.

Catholic teaching is completely reasonable and fits like hand-in-glove with Holy Scripture. I'm attaching some passages from the Catechism which may help.

Catholic teaching is right. We are saved through baptism - as Noah and the eight were saved through the waters. Washed clean. Adopted into the family. And yet, it is possible to turn our back on our Heavenly Father. And so, we must continue to run the race so as not to have run in vain. Pick up our cross and follow Him daily.

As St. Therese said, all is grace.

Blessings on these final days of preparation. And may Our Lord richly bless you as you continue in this journey which began with the washing of sin and your birth into God's family. May He lead you, with His peace, all the way Home.


(P.S.) One more thing. I am sure the priest or deacon wanted to be sure that the parents fully understood that this is the beginning. They must continue to raise this child in the Faith. Nurtured and fed spiritually, until he is able to embrace the baptismal vows for himself. Too many Catholics have the idea that the baptism is not only the beginning, but also the middle and the end - as though nothing else is required of any of them. But this life of grace is like the gift of life. It is the beginning, but if one stops eating and nurturing the body, life dies. The Church, with the Sacraments, nurtures and feeds the spirit, like a mother, to ensure the growth of the child of God. Not to insure, but to ensure. And it begins with baptism, just as physical life began with birth. The emphasis is on what God has done. Just as God gave life to this child, God has now given the free gift of the life of grace. It is not you who have chosen me, says the Lord, but I who have chosen you. And yet, we must get on with living this life we've been given. We must choose this day whom we will serve, but as for me and my household we will serve the Lord.

(from the Catechism)
Baptism (CCC 1213–1284) Because of original sin, we are born without grace in our souls, so there is no way for us to have fellowship with God. Jesus became man to bring us into union with his Father. He said no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is first born of "water and the Spirit" (John 3:5)—this refers to baptism.

Through baptism we are born again, but this time on a spiritual level instead of a physical level. We are washed in the bath of rebirth (Titus 3:5). We are baptized into Christ’s death and therefore share in his Resurrection (Rom. 6:3–7).

Baptism cleanses us of sins and brings the Holy Spirit and his grace into our souls (Acts 2:38, 22:16). And the apostle Peter is perhaps the most blunt of all: "Baptism now saves you" (1 Pet. 3:21). Baptism is the gateway into the Church.


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