Thursday, April 26, 2012

Your newborn needs Jesus; or Why we baptized our newborn, and you should too

On the right is our pastor Fr Hennen, and on our left is
Adelaide's godparents, just following Adelaide's baptism
Little Adelaide was born March 27th. She was born-again on April 1st.

What I mean of course is that she was baptized. Yes, to be born-again means to be baptized (which, by the way, means that baptism is necessary for salvation; see John 3.1-5).

Why did we think we needed to baptize our precious new daughter? Because Adelaide needs Jesus.

In the New Testament St Paul writes that "in Adam all die" (1 Corinthians 15.22) and that we are all "enslaved to sin" (Romans 6.6).

When Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, he fell from grace and was cut off from God. This stain, which we call Original Sin, is transmitted to every person via their parents. All human beings (baring a special grace of God, as with Mary's Immaculate Conception; or with Jesus) have Original Sin from the moment they are conceived and are thus also cut off from God and destined to hell. Left to ourselves, we are helpless and unable to enter into right relationship with God.

Which is why Jesus came to save us! To gain heaven and avoid hell, a person must be washed of Original Sin by the grace opened up to us by Christ's work on the Cross.

How can a person receive the grace of Christ for their salvation? The evangelical answer: by putting their faith in Christ, of course! The Catholic Church also affirms the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.

But what about those who are unable to explicitly put their faith in Christ? Remember, Original Sin is transmitted to all human beings at the moment of their conception by their parents. We are born already cut off from God, helpless if left to our own power, and in dire need of Jesus. What of newborns or adults who are incapable of explicitly putting their faith in Christ? Are they closed off from Christ's Body the Church, and thus from salvation, as long as they are incapable of explicitly putting their faith in Christ?

Can a newborn be a Christian, too?

Most evangelicals who know what they're talking about don't deny Original Sin and certainly affirm the necessity of Christ for salvation. But I'm not sure that many have really considered the full implications of holding those two doctrines together, particularly for small children and others incapable of explicitly putting their faith in Christ.

Adelaide in her baptismal gown
It seems to me that evangelicals have two choices:

First, many evangelicals (and Catholics) will be tempted to say that of course a baby who dies will be saved by God because the baby hasn't done anything wrong. But pointing out that the baby has done nothing wrong misses the point: we all have Original Sin from the moment we are conceived and are in need of Jesus before we have done anything right or wrong.

Second, they can bite the bullet and say that newborns and some adults have no ordinary means of salvation available to them, not even in principle.

It should be noted here that an ordinary means of salvation is a means of salvation that God has revealed to us as something on which we can depend; an extraordinary means of salvation is a means of salvation that is possible due to God's power, but that hasn't been revealed as something on which we can depend.

Few would deny that, since He is all-powerful, God is capable of bestowing saving grace on whomever he wants, including unbaptized babies (see more on this below). The question here is whether we can be confident that he will do so based on revelation.

What I'm pointing out here is that it seems as though evangelicals, perhaps unwittingly, hold that God has revealed no ordinary means of salvation - a means that God has revealed as something on which we can depend - for those for whom explicit faith in Jesus is not possible, such as small children and some adults.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has always rejected the notion that small children and some adults have no ordinary means of receiving the grace the Christ on which we can depend. Jesus came for everyone, including small children and adults with mental disabilities: "[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2.4) And so in His wisdom, Christ willed that his grace would be ordinarily conferred in a way available, at least in principle, to all: baptism.

Though most evangelicals hold that baptism is merely symbolic, Scripture teaches that baptism is the means by which a person is set free from sin and united to Christ:
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6.3-11)
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3.27)
11 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, 12 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. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2.11-14)
38 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 will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2.38)
Four generations of women: Adelaide with her mother
Krista, grandmother Jeannine, and great-grandmother
Esther LaVonn
But what about faith? For those who are capable, making their faith in Christ explicit  is needed before they can receive baptism. But for those who are unable, such as newborns, the Church holds that those who present the child for baptism can express faith on their behalf. And of course, a person who was baptized as an infant must put their faith in Christ when they are able.

Scripture perhaps indicates the baptism of small children when it tells of whole families being baptized at once (Acts 16.15Acts 16.33). The baptism of small children was also the practice of the early Church and has remained the constant practice of the Church since (including among most of the Reformers and Protestants today). In particular, Origin wrote in A.D. 248:
The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit. (Commentaries on Romans 5:9)
When evangelicals deny their children baptism, they are unfortunately denying their children the only ordinary means of receiving the grace of Jesus for their salvation.

The Catechism summarizes this well:
Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, 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. (CCC 1250)
What of children that die without baptism? Because God has revealed that Original Sin is transmitted to every human being from their parents, and because baptism is the means revealed by God for the application of the grace of Christ to a person for salvation, the Church is unsure, but calls us to hope in God's extraordinary mercy:
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism. (CCC 1261)
Everyone who made it to the baptism
In other words, the Church acknowledges that God is capable of saving whomever he wants, though we should only count on the means that has been revealed to us, namely baptism.

It is quite ironic that as much as some evangelicals claim that we can play no part in our salvation and accuse Catholics of being a "religion of works", when it comes to an example in which a person is absolutely incapable of doing anything for their salvation (in this case, newborns), it is the Catholic Church which teaches that the person can still be saved by God's gratuitous grace (by means of baptism) and it is the beliefs of evangelicals that count the person out because of what the person can't do (explicitly put their faith in Christ).

Adelaide's baptism applied the grace of Jesus to her and thereby freed her from Original Sin, grafted her into Christ's Body the Church, and made her an adopted child of God. Your child needs Jesus just as much.

NOTE: I'm not saying that your child needs to baptized in the Catholic Church for them to receive saving grace. Baptism is effective regardless of who baptizes or where they baptize, as long as the correct form and matter is used ("I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" while putting water on the person's head) with the intention of doing a baptism. (CCC 1256)


  1. From Catechism class:

    Tell me: did the Canaanite woman's daughter have faith? We don't know. Jairus' daughter? Don't know! Centurion's servant? Don't know! Paralyzed man? Don't know! The married couple at Cana? Don't know! Right. Jesus did those people a favor because other people of faith asked for them. What's that called? Intercession! Yes. And remind me who intercedes when a baby is baptized? The parents! And does Jesus do the parents a favor? Yes! Right!

  2. Speaking of babies, yesterday my 20 year old daughter & fiance got the pastor's ok to be wed in November. They plan to start a family right away.

  3. I read somewhere...and I apologize that I can't remember where...that during the colonial days unbaptized children were excluded from burial in the church cemeteries-protestant varieties-and since the mortality rate of infants and children was relatively high back then that would include a lot of people. I'm not sure of what the theology would be and which of the protestant "brands" it fell under, but obviously they had some sense of the necessity of baptism for salvation. I just wonder why they wouldn't embrace infant baptism then? Can you imagine the grief burying a child outside the hallowed ground because he wasn't old enough to profess faith and be baptized? The Catholic cemeteries of course always had graves of children.

    It would seem logical that denying baptism actually does anything sacramental would be the next step. My sister is in the Church of Christ and I've never really gotten a straight answer on their theology of baptism. It is necessary for salvation, but is invalid without a profession of faith and evidently original sin is not passed on to each of us because Jesus conquered gets very confusing...and you sure as heck can't use any references from anything but the KJV.

    1. Very interesting about old time America, and also the Church of Christ. I don't know much about the Church of Christ. So then are they Universalists? Or Pelagians?

    2. Just throwing this out here regarding Church of Christ and their opinion on baptism.

      The first axis is credo vs. paedo, what this post is addressing. Paedo baptisms asserts that baptism should be administered to children while credo only to the regenerate.

      The second axis is baptismal regeneration vs. covenantial baptism vs. baptismal identification.

      Those 2 axis together gives potential 6 possibilities.
      paedo baptism + regeneration is the most common (Catholic position) while the 2nd most is the mainstream baptist position is credo-baptism + identification. Those two being as common as they are identification and regeneration are sometimes grouped as just a property of the paedo/credo debate. But that's not true you can find 5 of the 6 possible combinations in groups of churches with 10m plus members.

      CoC (and most Stone-Campbell denominations including Mormons) are unusual in that it believes in credo-baptism + regeneration. This was a key theology of restoration. If you read the early fathers they clearly believed in baptismal regeneration seeing baptism as instrumental to salvation. To be Christian was to be baptized. On the other hand they seemed to have performed the baptismal rite only on adults, which was the classic anabaptist argument against paedo-baptism. So an honest restoration would conclude that should be the Christian theology of baptism. The counter argument the only I'm sure Brantly would raise is that as far as we can tell no one from about 200 CE to 1790 CE had ever held this position.

      As an aside I should mention when I was a Christian I agreed with Campbell on this. I considered paedo-baptism to be outright sin but the amount of evidence for an early belief in baptismal regeneration was overwhelming. I saw 0 ancient Christians who believed that baptism was a mere identification with no supernatural effect.

  4. The KJV works pretty well for Catholics, esp when compared with more recent 'translations' such as the NIV.

  5. When it comes to adult baptism, it's easy enough to grasp that baptism washes our sins away. But with infant baptism, I find the concept of Original Sin as a positive stain -though well established in the Western Church- hard to get my brain around. I think it's more helpful, when discussing infant baptism, to speak of Original Sin not so much as the presence of a bad thing (stain/sin) as the absence of a good & necessary thing -grace. The mind recoils at the idea that Adam got stamped with some indellible stain that he passes on to all his descendants, but if we take the approach that Adam's disobedience cut him off from grace, and all his descendants are born with that same ABSENCE of grace -because you can't pass on something you don't have- and that grace can only be restored through baptism, then THAT is much easier to visualize, and to accept.

    1. Hey Anon,

      Yes, as far as I have been taught, you're right. Original Sin (as with all things evil) is not a substantial thing, but an absence of the grace that was lost.

  6. Adam's sin didn't just take grace away, it produced a negative condition in all creation. Thus we have disease, death, hurricanes, etc. But I like what you're saying about the absence of grace.

  7. One could argue that it was the absence of grace that produced the negative condition in all creation. Getting cut off from grace WAS the single, fundamental consequence of Adam's sin. Everything else was fallout from that. In any case, I wasn't denying the presence of a negative condition, only pointing out that in certain situations, emphasizing one aspect of baptism over the other can make it easier for non-Catholics (and even Catholics!) to get their brains around the theological concepts underpinning infant baptism. It's easier to picture a baby LACKING something (that it can't ask for on its own) than picturing a baby with some stain that needs to be washed away. I'm addressing the limitations of human imagination, not the theological reality of the stain. As a faithful Catholic, I still have a hard time understanding how baptism can wash us clean of the stain of Original Sin, yet leave behind concupiscence -the tendency to sin. But when I look at it in terms of grace loss and restored, but also needed on an on-going basis to fight the damage caused by sin (concupiscence) -not just a one-time infusion as many Evangelicals hold- then it all makes sense.

    1. Thanks for that elaboration. Being a cradlecat I have to stretch to consider other Christians' worldviews on faith.