In the course of dialogue with various ecclesial communities, I have noticed how a number of such communities have come to deny the importance of sacramentalwater baptism as the means by which a soul is to be purified of sin and incorporated into Christ’s Body, the Church. Such communities justify this by quoting certain passages of Scripture out of context. For example, John 3:16 is often cited in ways that ignore John 3:3-6.
In doing so, they overlook the fact that the record of the apostolic Church’s evangelization ministry is recorded primarily through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles. In the Acts, none of the apostles declare that a person is saved by merely accepting Jesus as his/her personal Savior and Lord. Over and over again, they follow the injunction of Jesus recorded in Matt 28:18-20, that people must be baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, they insist on the importance of water baptism – a truth pointed out by Jesus Himself to Nicodemus in John 3:5, when He insisted that one must be born again of water and the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit inspired the sacred author, Luke, to repeatedly reaffirm this truth in the Acts of the Apostles. Note that Acts 2:37-38, 8:12-13, 8:36-38, 9:17-18, 10:40-48, 11:44-48, 16:14-15, 22:13-17, 25:34, 18:7-8, 19:1-7 and 22:16 all clearly accentuate such baptism as essential for sharing in the new life of grace offered through Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. Nowhere in the Book of Acts does anyone coming into the new life of grace merely by sincerely accepting Jesus as personal Savior and Lord. Rather, people, in obedience to the clear directive of Jesus, humbly submit to the sanctifying ritual of receiving baptism from another and thus come to share in the new life of grace. Spiritual regeneration is not the work of a repentant sinner, but rather the work of Christ, who proactively embraces the sinner into the life of grace and communion with His Body, the Church, through sacramental Baptism.
The importance of this saving ritual is also reaffirmed to those who are already baptized into the Church in Rom 6:2-4, I Cor 12-13, I Cor 15:29, and Gal 3:27. Likewise, it is worth noting that the letters of Paul, James, Peter, John and Jude were all written to church communities whose members had already been baptized into Christ. They presume that the members of these communities were baptized, as indicated in the passages cited above in this paragraph.
Thus it is that the testimony of God’s Word, given in the New Testament, asserts repeatedly the necessity of baptism. It also presumes that the faithful, having been baptized into Christ, thereby became members of His Body, the Church, which God has ordained to be the pillar and foundation of truth (I Tim 3:15).
In view of this, any Biblical support for the teaching that one is saved not by humble submission to being baptized into Christ, but rather by personally accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord, is rather tenuous. Although it may be guided by good intentions, it falls short in being submissive to the whole truth of God, clearly and repeated in the Holy Scriptures. The danger of following our good intentions rather than the clear directives of God can be seen in the incidents recorded in I Sam 13:2-14, I Sam 15:2-33 and II Sam 6:1-10.
In the first incident, Saul gave into his fears and anxieties, and instead of waiting for the priest-prophet, Samuel, to offer a sacrifice before a battle, offered it himself. In the second incident, Saul did not follow God’s clear directive to completely destroy Amelek, since he alleged that it would be more appropriate to sacrifice the best in a more solemn context, rather than immediately put them under the ban. In the third incident, David failed to carry out the mandate that the Ark of the Covenant was to be carried by the priests. Instead, he had it moved on an ox cart, which ended up having lethal consequences for a good intentioned gesture by Uzzah.
To be honest, though, we must note that God alone reads the hearts of men. This basic truth is deeply appreciated by those who assert that people are saved by humbly acknowledging their sins and accepting Jesus as both Savior and Lord. But such acts, if sincere, would necessarily lead a soul to seek to grow in the obedience of faith, and thus submit to being baptized.
This leads to another important point. By asserting that my salvation is effected by my actions of confessing my sins and accepting Jesus as my Savior and Lord, I put the emphasis on myself and my action. But salvation is effected by His gracious action, effected in His Church through the gracious fidelity of the Holy Spirit. As an aside, I must note that I cannot give myself to Jesus. Because I am so crippled, perverted and disoriented by sin and its consequences in my life, I lack the integrity to be in full possession of myself. Thus I am unable to give myself to Christ. All I can do is humbly and awkwardly cry out for His mercy and grace. And even this is beyond my power, thus necessitating the assistance of the profound unutterable groanings of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, in the depths of my soul (cf., Rom 8:26-27). Thus it is that
salvation is not so much a matter of my accepting Jesus as it is of Jesus accepting me, forgiving me, regenerating me by His Holy Spirit and incorporating me into His Body, the Church.
We also need to remember that salvation is intrinsically covenantal and ecclesial. The love of Christ, into which we are drawn by the Holy Spirit, is not merely symbiotic. The Church is thus not merely a spiritual support group. The members of the Church are not merely to use one another, so as to be less anxious and drawn into spiritualities of comfort, convenience and complacency. Rather, they are to be encouraged by each other to take ever more seriously the whole truth of God. They are to find true fulfillment by obediently investing their lives into the saving ministry of Christ. In Him, they are to sanctify the world through ongoing repentance, deepening faith, humble docility, persevering fidelity and an evangelistic compassion that draws all dimensions of our shared humanity into the mystery and ministries of divine intimacy.
As a final point, we should note that Baptism transforms one’s whole being, making a person a new creation in Christ. Those, who are baptized, have died to sin. Their lives are now hidden with Christ in God. Thus, to be true to themselves, they must be conscientiously true to Christ and His mission to glorify the Father by cooperating with the Holy Spirit in bringing His image and likeness to perfection in all dimensions of our shared humanity. The refusal or failure to be true to the dignity infused in them by Baptism and confirmed in their hearts by the Holy Spirit would be as detrimental to their spiritual lives as a steady diet of junk food and a lethargic lifestyle would be to their physical lives.
The salvation offered to us in Christ is not static, but ever-dynamic. It is not a possession, but a sacred and sanctifying trust. And only by faithfully abiding in Christ and ministering with Him can we live out that trust in ways that deliver us from evil as we delve more deeply into the the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God, Who is at all times faithfully and lovingly drawing all dimensions of our lives and relationships into the transformative mystery of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, His Son and Our Lord. And just as marriage vows need to be reaffirmed in a multitude of ways each day, the life of covenantal grace and love must be ratified throughout each day by those incorporated into Christ through Baptism.
There is no redemption in tepid love. Only by being conscientiously caught up into the redemptive love of Christ in all dimensions of our humanity can we be disciples, who are truly faithful to Christ, to ourselves and to all those entrusted to our care.
Spero columnist Rev. Thomas Collins is a Catholic priest who serves the people of Virginia.