I have to admit it rattled my Protestant bones to learn, as I explained in Part I, that the unanimous testimony of the early church — in fact of Christianity until the time of the Reformation — supported a sacramental view of baptism.
With this historical truth in mind, I turned to the New Testament. I wanted to read what it had to say about baptism as though for the first time, in the light of what I’d learned.
I began with the classic passage John 3:3-5:
“I tell you the truth, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus said. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God…
Water and Spirit. Is Jesus talking about baptism, here?
Baptists of course say, no. Some say that Jesus is drawing a contrast here between natural birth (water) and supernatural rebirth (Spirit). Others say, no, water is a metaphor for Spirit. When Jesus says we must be born of “water and the Spirit” he’s just saying the same thing in two ways.
Some say this, some say that, but everyone agrees that whatever Jesus is saying, he most certainly isn’t talking about baptism.
But then, the Catholic scripture scholars I was reading at the time encouraged me to consider the context of these verses. When I did, I saw some things I’d never seen before.
Water and Spirit in John’s Gospel
What do we see when we look at the preceding context of John 3:3-5?
Well, in John chapter one, we read about the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. John the Baptist recounts that when Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended on him. In the parallel accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke we learn that at the same time a voice from heaven was heard: “This is my beloved Son.”
And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34).
Interesting: Water, Spirit and Sonship.
Moving forward into the second chapter of John, we find Jesus performing his first miracle, in which he transforms six vessels of water used for ceremonial purification into wine. In the book of Hebrews these Jewish washings are referred to as “baptisms”. Again, interesting.
Flip forward one more page to John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be “born of water and the Spirit” and immediately after this (now the succeeding context) we read in verse 22, “After this Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized.” By the way, this is the only place in all four Gospels where Jesus is described as baptizing.
In other words, it turns out that John 3:3-5 is bracketed on both sides by stories about baptism and ceremonial washings. The entire context of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus is baptism!
Is it really possible that a sensitive reader of John’s gospel would not think Jesus was talking about baptism when he says we must be born of water and the Spirit?
But this was just the beginning. I was encouraged to examine the idea of water and Spirit in the context of Scripture as a whole.
Water and Spirit throughout Scripture
Turns out these are terms and images that appear together throughout the Bible — and always in connection to new life.
In the story of creation, in the very first verses of the Bible, what do we find but the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters to bring forth life (Genesis 1). The Hebrew word translated “Spirit” here is ruach, which can also be translated “wind.”
Water, Spirit and new life.
Speaking of this passage, St. Theophilus of Antioch wrote around AD 181,
Moreover, those things which were created from the waters were blessed by God, so that this might also be a sign that men would at a future time receive repentance and remission of sins through water and the bath of regeneration.
In the story of Noah we again find water and Spirit appearing together. For a second time waters cover the face of the earth, for a second time God sends his ruach to cause the waters to recede, and for a second time a new creation emerges. Noah releases a dove (like the dove that descended on Jesus at the time of his baptism) and it returns with an olive branch in its beak.
Water, Spirit and new life. A new creation in which the world is regenerated.
In the story of the crossing of the Red Sea we find water and Spirit together again. The Israelites have left their bondage in Egypt and become trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian armies. Moses stretches forth his staff and suddenly a “wind” comes from God (again, ruach) and blows across the waters dividing them so that the children of Israel can pass over on dry land.
In I Corinthians 10 St Paul tells us this was their “baptism” into Moses.
In 2 Kings Naaman the Syrian leper is instructed to dip himself in the Jordan River seven times in order to be cleansed of his leprosy. He complains that Elijah hasn’t given him something more impressive to do, but finally humbles himself to perform this simple act of faith and is healed. God uses this “washing” as the occasion for a cleansing that he performs by his Spirit.
Writing around 190 A.D., St Irenaeus Bishop of Lyon commented on this miracle:
“And [Naaman] dipped himself…seven times in the Jordan.” It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: “Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of God”‘ (Fragment 34).
Water and Spirit in the New Covenant
The idea of ceremonial washings is of course all through the Old Testament. There were a number of these “washings” (Hebrews 9:9,10 refer to them as “baptisms”) prescribed by the Law of Moses (the washing of hands, of cups and dishes, of sacrificial animals, etc.) but as the author of Hebrews tells us, these were “not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.” He describes them as a matter of “external regulations applying until the time of the new order” — that is, the new Covenant in Christ, when the Spirit of God would grant the realities these washings merely depicted.
And notice how that New Covenant is described in Ezekiel 36:24-27:
For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
The blessings of the New Covenant are described in terms of a baptism in which sins would be cleansed, the Spirit would be given, hearts of stone would be removed and replaced by hearts of flesh. In other words, a baptism by which we would become sons of God.
We Protestants were always bashing Catholics for not knowing their Bibles and here I am reading Catholic scholars and seeing things in Scripture I’d never noticed before.
God’s Spirit brings forth life through water – in creation, at the time of the flood, at the crossing of the Red Sea. Naaman is cleansed by the Spirit through water. Jesus sends a blind man to wash and he comes up seeing. I began to see that the ideas behind baptismal regeneration are profoundly scriptural.
Baptism in the New Testament
It was time to read on through the New Testament, see if there were any other passages that might support the Catholic teaching on baptismal regeneration.
I came to Acts chapter two. The New Covenant has been established in Christ’s body and blood, the Jewish feast celebrating the ingathering of the first fruits of the harvest arrives (Pentecost) and the Spirit descends on the apostles. Peter preaches, his hearers are cut to the heart and cry out, “What must we do?” and he responds, “Repent and be baptized, everyone of you for the remission of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
What? Is Peter saying the Spirit will be given them through baptism?
I read on and came to Acts 19, where Paul encounters some disciples in Ephesus. He asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed and when they answer, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” Paul responds with the strangest of questions: “Then what baptism did you receive?”
I remember thinking, Well, that’s weird. Paul learns that someone hasn’t received the Holy Spirit and his mind immediately goes to baptism? Why? What does baptism have to do with it?
I read on and came to Acts 22 where the devout Ananias says to Saul of Tarsus, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”
At this point I was almost wondering whether I’d ever even read these verses before! “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins?” Is he saying sins are washed away in baptism?
I came to Romans 6, where Paul says that in our baptism we were buried with Christ and raised to new life, and it’s clear from the context that he believes something actually happened to us in our baptism that freed us from slavery to sin.
I came to I Corinthians 12:13, where Paul says Christians have been baptized by one Spirit into one body and all given one Spirit to drink.
Finally, I came to I Peter 3:21, a passage confusing to most evangelical Protestants. Peter is speaking about how Noah and his family were saved through the waters of the flood. And then he says,
And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also — not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
In chapter 1:3 Peter spoke of how believers have been “given a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Here he speaks of baptism saving them… “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
In Peter’s mind baptism and the new birth are related. Peter seems to be saying that as Noah and his family were saved through the waters of the flood, so we are saved through the waters of baptism — not because there’s something magical about the water or the outward rite. It saves us, we are born anew, through the power of Christ’s resurrection (the Spirit!) as we pledge ourselves to God by this act of submitting to baptism.
There are other passages as well, but that’s enough.
Now, as an evangelical Protestant I might have thought, these verses don’t prove anything! They don’t ‘prove’ that the New Testament is teaching a sacramental view of baptism! There are other ways to interpret each of these passages.
On the other hand, I had to admit that somehow the apostles spoke in ways I as a Protestant preacher would never have spoken.
Why is it, I wondered, that if had preached a million sermons I would never have thought to issue Peter’s altar call from Acts 2: “Repent and be baptized and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”? In fact, I’d never heard a single Protestant pastor use words like that. We called people to ‘believe in Christ.’ We called them to ‘accept Christ as Savior.’ No one ever said, “Repent and be baptized and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit!” Why?
Why is it I would never have thought to say to anyone, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins”?
Why is it that if I had met someone who said he’d never heard of the Holy Spirit, it would never have crossed my mind to respond, “Hmmm, what baptism did you receive?”
Why would I never in my entire lifetime as a Baptist minister have said, “Baptism now saves you”?
Sure, I might not be able to ‘prove’ on the basis of Scripture alone that all of this evidence added up to the Catholic teaching on baptism.
But what I had said to myself, after learning that this was the belief and teaching of Christians essentially until the time of the Reformation, was not that I would join them in that belief if I could ‘prove’ on the basis of Scripture alone that their position was correct. What I’d said was that I would join them unless it was absolutely clear that the Catholic Church’s position contradicted the teaching of the New Testament, that the New Testament clearly rejected the teaching of the Church for the first fifteen centuries of its existence.
Could I say that? Not even close. Not even close…
And even though this was just one measly little doctrine, it changed the way I thought about everything.
Here was a doctrine that (a) had been held the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity, that (b) appeared to fit very well the teaching of Scripture, and that (c) was essentially unknown within evangelical Protestantism. And I mean unknown. This is how cut off evangelical Protestantism is from history. This is how cut off I had been from historic Christianity.
I became eager to see if what I found to be true of the Catholic view of baptism might not be true of other Catholic beliefs.